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Melissa Preddy

Veteran financial writer Melissa Preddy served as a business writer, editor and columnist for The Detroit News from 1995 to 2008, is a Michigan-based freelance journalist. She now works as a writer and editor for a medical research unit of the University of Michigan Medical School. Follow her daily posts. | E-mail: Melissa Preddy

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Stock market records mean little to households with no access to market

Tim Horton's Burger King logos

Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in February 2014.

Wall Street chalked up another milestone on Tuesday when the Standard and Poor’s 500 index closed above 2,000 points for the first time ever, buoyed by gains in durable goods orders and higher consumer confidence, as Reuters reports.

Those big round numbers are causing the usual buzz in the financial press — the Wall Street Journal says “The Bull Market’s Strength Is Reaching Epic Proportions,” and notes that “The S&P 500 has rallied 195% since March 2009, the fourth-best bull market since 1928 in terms of both duration and magnitude, according to Bespoke Investment Group.”

The sustained bull market is good news for investors, particularly those who stayed the course.  The Investment Company Institute, an industry trade group, recently issued a release with the catchy headline  “Accounts of Consistent 401(k) Participants Grew 6.8 Percent Annually During the Five Years That Included Financial Crisis.”   People who did not liquidate investments, or tap them in hard times, and who continued to make contributions, now are reaping the benefit of following traditional buy-and-hold advice.  Read the full ICI report here. (PDF)

No doubt many investors are enjoying their quarterly statements more these days.  But one angle you might pursue is flip side of the coin:  Only about half of Americans are invested in the stock market, and many don’t have any practical way to be invested.   Which may explain why the roaring bull market is making so little noise on Main Street:  Gallup just reported that “U.S. Investors Seem Unaware of Bull Market’s Strong Gains,” noting that its polls found low awareness and low optimism about a market which actually is in one of its brightest stretches of the past 85 years.  The market apparently is out of reach of a huge segment of Americans, who already are woefully behind in savings — some 36 percent lack any sort of retirement account, according to this L.A. Times report based on a new Bankrate.com study.

With one of this year’s recurrent stories the low wages and low quality of most newly created jobs, why not talk with a cross-section of workers about what (if anything) these stock market headlines mean to them, and whether they see the stock market as a viable investment for them?  You also could talk with Certified Financial Planners about when and whether households on very limited budgets should invest in stocks, and provide a step-by-step primer on opening, say, a Roth IRA with automatic contributions. (Keeping in mind the monies funneled to a Roth need not necessarily be invested in stocks).

People in your audience who feel shut out of America’s financial markets may appreciate guidance in how to participate, or alternative ideas from the pros.  Sometimes, for example, the savings in tax liability can offset the first few percentage points of income they contribute to a plan, so their pocketbook won’t know the difference but the dollars will be headed to their own coffers rather than the Treasury Department’s.  I don’t think that’s reported widely enough, complete with the math, to refute the notions of those who feel they can’t afford to save.

Another angle is the gender gap in retirement savings:  This Wells Fargo survey says more men than women invest in 401(k) plans and at a greater rate.  Talk with consumers, employer sponsors of plans, financial counselors and advisers about why this is.  Here’s a Reuters story about women’s greater need for retirement security and problems in saving, too.

Another way to localize the S&P 500 milestone is to take a look at how index members in your neck of the woods have performed vis a vis the overall index and their peers.  It’s a decent reason to check in with local companies about their fourth-quarter and 2015 outlook, their take on the coming mid-term elections, sentiment about Fed policy and other economic issues.  Oddly I could not locate a list of S&P 500 members sortable by state, but this list in Wikipedia will serve as a starting point for you; a local brokerage firm probably can use its Bloomberg terminal to create a list for you, as well.


Burger King bid for coffee shops puts fast food evolution in the spotlight

Tim Horton's Burger King logos

A deal to acquire Tim Hortons would move the company’s headquarters to Canada.

Wall Street gobbled up shares of fast-food monarch Burger King on Monday, following word that the 60-year-old chain might be headquartering north following the acquisition of the Tim Horton’s coffee and doughnut shops.

Both chains enjoyed double-digit stock price hikes, with investors licking their chops over the favorable tax situation Burger King would enjoy as a Canadian company, as the Chicago Tribune reports.  (Here’s a primer on corporate tax inversion and why companies do it by Trib reporters; it’s been a buzzword all summer particularly in Chicago, where hometown drugstore company Walgreen’s recently floated the notion of moving itself overseas.)

It’s an interesting phenomenon and one that is interpreted as somewhat disloyal to American patrons — one senator already is calling for a Burger King boycott in favor of hometown favorites Wendy’s and White Castle — and the consumer reaction angle is one you might pursue quickly.  What do franchise owners hear from their patrons about the prospect of BK having it their way, and how are they handling any reaction from restaurant patrons?   Mashable says “Burger King may be in for a whopper of a backlash,” citing comments on social media, while the chain itself is trying to quash the image of itself as a tax dodger.

Good story but I wonder if the local fast-food joint has quite the emotional grip on patrons that it might have had several years or several decades ago.  A look at the evolution of quickie food service and the viability of hamburger chains might be an interesting response to the Burger King headlines.

Fast Casual vs. Just Fast Food

The Wall Street Journal just reported that consumers in their 20s and 30s favor chains like Chipotle over burger & fries fare; the WSJ said “the percentage of people age 19 to 21 in the U.S. who visited McDonald’s monthly has fallen by 12.9 percentage points since the beginning of 2011, according to Technomic, while the percentage of customers age 22 to 37 visiting monthly during that period has been flat. ”  A recent Forbes piece said that diners’ preference for “fast casual” places like Panera is taking a bite out of businesses on either side of the spectrum, from traditional fast-food on one hand to casual sit-down chains like Olive Garden on the other.   Why not head out and talk with store owners, managers and customers — and make your own assessment of who’s eating where, what they’re spending, and why?  I noted recently in a college town near me that an on-campus McDonald’s actually closed, while stores such as Potbelly and Five Guys have proliferated.  What happens to the investment of long-time franchise owners of stores like McDonald’s and Burger King when traffic wanes?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture offers a fascinating data set, the Food Environment Atlas (worth exploring when you have a moment for other ideas) and amid this treasure trove is a map of fast-food establishments, expenditures and more -  by county!  The data is from 2011 but it will certainly get you off to a good start and provide per-capita context for describing the fast-food scene in your market.  And there are comparative figures from 2007 to help you show trends.

Another facet of the issue: This Motley Fool article said increasing food offerings at convenience stores is cutting into traditional fast-food sales, as well.  And I’ve noticed a number of grocery stores touting their deli areas and fresh salad bars as convenient lunch or dinnertime fare; they’ve even moved things around to stock single-serve beverages near the deli.  This Frick’s Market, a rebuilt grocery store in rural Union, Mo., included a pleasant dining area in its recent re-design and its website offers lunch specials such as bratwurst & tater tots for $1.99 — and the company’s Facebook page touts “Simple Supper Solutions” available from the drive-up window at its deli.  Clearly, someone there saw an opportunity to compete with traditional fast food.  What are retailers and other food purveyors in your area doing?

As I often say, you likely can find an angle to this story even if you’re not on the retail, restaurant or Wall Street beat.  Think health care, technology, marketing and advertising, even agricultural sectors that supply the big burger chains — all will be feeling the ripple effect of changing consumer tastes.




Chronicle the changing nature of jobs for a fresh take on Labor Day

Riding on a motor boat

Photo by Christina Rutz

With Labor Day only a week away, you may be pondering ways to commemorate the holiday, which was first observed in September 1882 in New York City, according to an account on the U.S. Department of Labor website.

In the ensuing 132 years, the ebb and flow of the organized labor / collective bargaining movements has followed a fascinating trajectory, and a review of the current state of union representation is always interesting this time of year.

Here’s an interesting roundup of Gallup survey results regarding labor unions; note that last year only 8 percent of respondents said they’re a member of a union and most people surveyed expect labor unions to become weaker as time goes on.   And here’s a link to some Pew research about attitudes toward labor unions; it’s fascinating that despite the deteriorating quality of jobs in the United States, from stagnant wages to the “just in time” worker scheduling that prompted this recent New York Times article “Part time jobs, full time headaches,” that the American public continues to view unions in a mostly unfavorable light.

You might want to talk with labor experts, union officials, corporate management, consumers and workers in your area about the cause of the seeming disconnect, even as worker clout continues to wane.  Are there any local efforts underway to establish collective bargaining?  That’s an angle for any beat, from health care to casinos to office work.

Or you could pursue the part-time jobs angle, which is getting a big buzz lately – this column from Al Jazeera America points out that despite the wane in unemployment, “Since 2007 full-time jobs are actually down by 1.6 million, while part-time jobs have grown by 2.7 million.”  Can you find some local case studies/household situations where people are off the jobless rolls but in lower-quality positions than they previously held?  Or newly minted workers fresh out of high school and college, taking part-time jobs to eke by?

Here also is a U.S. Census Bureau “Facts for Features” reference page of factoids related to Labor Day, from union membership to prevalence of various occupations to wages.  Just about every item is a launching pad for a more in-depth story, from the male/female wage gap to Labor Day weekend travel to the fastest-growing job category: personal care aide.

Other Labor Day stories include, of course, travel & tourism, shopping & retail sales and even a look at the wind-up of summer road work projects and other efforts that have local economic impact.

However, my bid for the most interesting angle for Labor Day 2014 would be a look at the contingent workforce, whether long-term contractors, short-term temporary staffing, freelance service providers or any other cohort that works for 1099 pay instead of W-2 wages and benefits on the beats you cover.

This trends report from software maker Intuit predicts that contingent workers will comprise more than 40 percent of the workforce by 2020, with traditional pay-plus-benefits jobs increasingly harder to find.  (The entire report is chock full of story nuggets for future use, too; it’s worth a thorough read.)

Here’s an eye-opening report from the consulting firm Accenture that’s quite enthusiastic about “Creating a just-in-time workforce,”  and the benefits of such strategies, like using former workers as 1099 contractors.  (“Outperform the competition,” according to Accenture.  It would be interesting to ask the authors or their counterparts at other agencies about how they suggest workers cope with a perpetual short-term approach to jobs.

This report from staffing firm Snelling, Rise of the Contingent Workforce,” (PDF)  is helpful in defining some industry terms and jargon.

Check around with staffing firms about trends in long- and short-term contract work in your area, including the duration of assignments, wages and other conditions.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t seem to have any fresh numbers but these “Contingent and Alternative Employment” tables from 2005 should help you formulate lines of inquiry to pursue now.

The following blog post (I’m not vouching for the blogger, whom I don’t know, but his points are worth noting) about a little-remarked-upon penalty to the freelance worker – self-employment taxes – is worth at least a sidebar.  That extra 7.5 percent right off the top of 1099 wages can come as a shock to people doing contingent work   You might want to ask  the IRS if it can parse out any changes over the past decade in reported 1099 vs. W-2 income for your state or region; I’m not finding any analyses online, surprisingly.  (If you do find the data, please share with us!)

Also, what are the implications of a growing class of 1099 workers when it comes to mortgage and auto lending, and other activities like renting that depend on proof of income?  How does it factor into child support arrangements – which of course ripple out economically through a community.  Here is a slightly dated CBS News report, “Temp work raises long-term questions for the economy,” about the shift in relationship between employer and employee.  The secure cradle-to-grave approach that characterized the mid-20th-century relationship between company and worker may have born some relationship to a peak in prosperity; could the current hand-to-mouth nature of participating in the workforce be prolonging economic malaise?  It’s worth asking some of the players and decision makers what they foresee in coming decades.


Ongoing Ferguson strife highlights economic, business concerns elsewhere

A man protects this storefront with reinforced plywood. Photo: The New York Times

The ongoing civil unrest in Ferguson, Mo., sparked by the police shooting of teenager Michael Brown, seems a bit of a stretch as a premise for business coverage.

But with no end in sight to the confrontations and headlines – especially in light of another shooting on Tuesday in the St. Louis area – and involvement by the U.S. Department of Justice and comments by President Obama, it might behoove financial writers everywhere to address some tangential storylines.

Clearly the root issues behind the strife in Missouri – from race to income/wealth inequality to the militarization of community police forces — are some of the most profound of our time and I’m not suggesting they are fodder for frivolous business features.  But realistically the nature of some of the violence does raise questions among consumers, small businesspersons and corporate entities about how they would fare under similar circumstances.

For example, images of damaged and looted stores must raise questions among merchants in your audience about their own liability; you might want to emulate this St. Louis Business Journal piece, “Most business insurance covers riots,” and offer a primer on what’s covered, and what’s not, in residential and commercial hazard policies.  Also talk with sellers of insurance in your neck of the woods; what are they hearing from the financial institutions whose products they represent in terms of guidance?

“Images of damaged and looted
stores must raise questions
among merchants in your
audience about their
own liability.”

One trade publication already is out with a piece called “The riots in Ferguson: What agents need to know,” and I would not be surprised if insurance offices in locales far from Missouri are getting inquiries from small-business clients looking for a checkup on the limits and terms of their current policies.

In addition to after-the-fact coverage, you could look into demand for preventatives such as security systems.  Vandalism is a fear of business owners everywhere – it’s the second-ranked concern voiced by owners  in a recent survey commissioned by security service firm ADT.

And, as always after events that involve fear and adversarial relationships, “gun sales are soaring.”  What are gun and ammunition sellers in your area seeing in response to civil unrest that comes amid a somber period of global political and military strife, including a highly partisan upcoming U.S. election season.  Another way events like those in Ferguson can ripple out beyond geographic borders is via securities markets.

Here’s a fresh opinion piece from MarketWatch.com about “Why Ferguson should matter to investors,” and appears to make points about the economic, social and community ramifications when large local employers (in the case of Ferguson, TWA and Anheuser-Busch) go out of business or are whisked away by mergers – leaving behind places like dollar stores and fast-food joints where the job opportunities will never promise the upward mobility of the long-gone manufacturing, transportation and other employers.

The above notion might be an opportunity for you to take a look at the economic fallout from the departure of any large employers from your region; how are the former employees faring and how has the loss of such jobs rippled out through the community in terms of poverty, crime, migration, the ability of residents to support vibrant small businesses, and so on.   Here’s a University of California-Davis pimer, “Finding Poverty Statistics,” that might help you find the historical data you’ll need for context on such a story.


Tackle a fantasy football story on any business beat

Guys drawing players for fantasy football teams

A foam hat and a Bud Light help get this fan in the spirit during the fantasy football draft. Photo: dabruins07 on Flickr

With both professional football and college football about to kick off their 2014 seasons, the myriad  businesses that depend on gridiron action to generate revenue, from hot-dog sellers to TV advertising executives, are counting down the moments to the first big plays.

But a lot of buzz this pre-season is focusing on the growing industry of fantasy football, and that’s one way you can tackle the topic even if your regular beat doesn’t intersect much with the business of sports.   It’s got technology angles, consumer and personal finance facets, workplace and human resources ties and related issues that can be applied to just about any sector of the economy.

As Fortune reports, the consulting firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas guestimates that at two hours a day of play, this focus on imaginary teams can cost businesses $895 million a week, or more than $13 billion over the course of the season. Some articles and columns pooh-pooh the downside of the distraction, like this piece from a human resources professional association, which says the pastime promotes employee morale, teamwork and good customer relations.  I’m sure there are managers skeptical of that stance and of course the potential ills of distracted working vary by industry; you don’t want your surgeon fretting over her picks but it probably does little harm if the cable guy takes a few minutes to calculate standing.   I suggest talking with local employers, from large to small, about any workplace policies or expectations as the big season looms.  I have heard of some people receiving annual memos from employers reminding them not to play on company time; is that becoming more or less common as the fantasy play industry grows?

And of course, the personal finance angle is of interest, especially as more and more companies get into pay-to-play fantasy football with real prizes.  As Forbes reports, entities like Yahoo!, CBS and even the NFL itself are entering that arena.  Why not enlist a handful of players from among your audience and ask them to track their spending against eventual payoff?  And of course, don’t forget the income tax angle; local CPAs or enrolled agents can elaborate on the points in this Taxbrain blog post, reminding people how to report winnings as income when they file next spring’s return.

As the Fantasy Sports Trade Association notes in its media kit, imaginary play is about more than football, though it remains the most popular fantasy game.  Stats like average player age (34) and other demographic data are available in the kit, which notes the average player spends more than eight hours a week “consuming fantasy.”

To find local companies involved in the business of fantasy sports, try the member search engine on the FSTA site; you can query by state to find your area’s biz players.  What is their annual ebb and flow of business?  How is the market changing?  How is mobile technology affecting the software requirements and player demographics?




Businesses beyond retail chalk up back-to-school sales

It’s axiomatic that back-to-school season is good business for apparel and footwear sellers, purveyors of pencils and gadget suppliers.

But for an interesting twist on the standard end-of-summer stories, how about a look at other businesses that benefit from back-to-school, including unexpected sectors like lice salons and bars.  Services that reflect the realities of hectic family life will be revving up, too. 

School bus

Facebook's full of back-to-school photos and the buses are running. Photo by Flickr user Svadilfari

Even moving companies are in on the act — UHaul offers an array of services for the return-to-college cohort, including a storage service to students need not schlep their belongings home between semesters.  And check out this piece about Bellhops, a by-the-hour packing and moving helper service started by a couple of enterprising students a few years ago.  It’s now in more than 130 cities. 

The National Retail Federation says combined spending on “BTS” and “BTC” (back to school and back to college) is expected to near $75 million in the United States this year — a powerhouse spending season rivaled only by the Christmas/winter holiday mania.    The elaborate NRF portal of BTS and BTC data is a testament to just how crucial this spending impetus is to an array of retailers, from housewares suppliers to discount apparel stores.

But the resumption of academic routines and schedules also can be a boon to non-merchants.  We know that health care checkups are necessary for a lot of kids heading back to class or to sports activities;  Walgreen’s is offering camp and school physicals for $39 at its drugstore clinics — why not check in with area hospitals, health centers and doctors’ offices about trends in the business of medical checkups.  

But for a quirkier take on the health care implications of full classrooms, check into the local business of “lice salons” — practitioners who specialize in eradicating the little pests that proliferate when a lot of kids get together.   As NBC12 in Richmond, Va. reported last fall, the number of lice removal businesses has quadrupled in recent years with busy families paying hefty fees to be relieved of the problem; new technology like heat blowers is subbing for pesticides.  What on earth propels a small business person into the lice removal industry and what’s the business model?   Readers would like to know.

Other services that accommodate time-pressed families include student transportation services; sort of a mobile facet of the day care or after-school care industries.  Companies like All Student Shuttle will drive kids to and from school, appointments and activities when parents can’t, or pick up ill children from school.   This is an interesting example of how businesses spring up to fill gaps created by shifting work and household trends, from parents with longer commutes to single-parent homes with fewer car-pool options.  What considerations — like booster seats and insurance liability — are involved in creating these companies, and what are the revenue possibilities?

Demand for tutoring and  extracurricular lessons such as music, gymnastics and skating ramps up this time of year; with many parents telling the NRF they continue to be concerned about the economy & are looking for shopping bargains, I wonder if that frugal mindset will extend to spending on optional activities and lessons.

Meanwhile, when it comes to the college crowd, businesses that cater to adult needs, like bistros and eateries, are licking their chops at the return of their patrons as well.  As WBTW in Myrtle Beach, S.C., reports, “Back to school means back to business for local  bars and restaurants.”   Not to mention laundry services, salons and barbers, theaters and other firms that rely on the influx of transient residents to stay afloat. 




Retailers delight as people throw showers for all occasions

Oh, the weather outside may be delightful, but to some the forecast is frightful:  Never-ending showers.

The gift-giving type, that is.  Rites of passages of all sorts are nowadays being coopted by retailers and marketers as the ideal occasions for showers involving lots of presents and even registries.

divorce cake with bride on top

No groom was needed on top of this divorce party cake. Photo: Samantha Smith

From college students to first-time grannies to divorcing spouses to man-cave “beer & diaper” soirees, they’re all fair game.  No life transition these days seems off-limits to the idea that they should not only be celebrated, but marked with lots of loot provided by guests.

And no longer is an excuse for a shower limited to our own species; the latest buzz concerns “puppy showers” held for recent adoptive parents of companion animals.  Not surprising in an economy where pet owners lavish some $60 billion a year on furry friends, particularly as “Americans are having dogs instead of babies,” as reported by Quartz in April. At the same time, the article notes, more people are adopting small (baby-sized?) canines than any other size hound; the population of petite pooches has more than doubled since 1999.

Enter, then, the shower for pet owners, promoted of course by industry players such as Beneful dog food and Modern Dog Magazine but also a hot spot on Pinterest and other crafty sites. (Meringue dog bones, anyone?)   Sites like CafePress even offer onesies for canine wear, the better to resemble an infant.  And a number of retail sites offer pet-goods registries, according to PetPlace.com.  (One wonders what is taking the big-box pet stores so long to get on board.)

Have showers gotten out of paw…er, hand – or are they a

While some shower customs date back to ancient cultures, in the 20th century versions they involved small teas at which a handful of close friends welcomed a woman to a new life stage – marriage and motherhood.  Gift traditionally were tokens like dish towels or diaper pins.  Wedding registries were merely a record kept by department stores of a bride’s chosen flatware and china patters, so nuptial guests could discreetly order a place setting or two. Marshall Field’s reportedly launched the innovationin 1924 at its Chicago store.

fluffy dogs in a baby stroller

As birth rates fall, pet ownership grows. Photo: Weijie

Nowadays, as we know, bridal and baby showers can be huge catered affairs at function halls, involving public-address systems, assembly-line gift-opening/tracking and in some circles the services of event coordinators and bridal shower consultants  – a niche business you might profile.  Elaborate showers also likely benefit retailers, caterers, liquor stores, purveyors of party supplies and table favors; why not consult some of these small businesses about trends in shower parties in your region?

And there’s more:

  • Grandparents to be traditionally how heaped largess on their new descendants.  But in a 21st century twist, Granny and Gramps are the giftees.  Yes, outfitting their home for visits by the grandkids – or for providing lots of child care – is a growing trend.  It’s only practical, writes Grandparents.com, though the Huffington Post chimes in that it could cause issues with the real mom-to-be, who don’t appreciate sharing the spotlight.  (And are friends wondering “why don’t we all buy our own playpens?’)
  • And for dad, a “Burgers, Beer and Diapers” party requests that guests stock up the expectant father with bales of disposable nappies while quaffing some ale and enjoying a manly barbecue; Etsy sellers seem to be doing a brisk trade in invitations and related items.
  • Members of a popular etiquette site are up in arms about the notion of a gift shower for the college-bound; CBS Local in Miami also reports on the trends, noting Target stores’ gift registry for college students, too. (As some of the etiquette mavens asked, what happened to the high-school graduation gifts; weren’t they supposed to be earmarked for college costs?)
  • I’ve seen references to the new-job shower, the new-home shower and even a break-up shower for those suddenly bereft of both their boyfriend and their blender.  (Or their girlfriend and their grater, etc.)
  • In a similar vein, divorce showers are not unheard of.  Nor are retirement showers and showers for people who are moving their residence.

If you would rather tackle the consumer angle: Modern showers also represent more than a bit of investment on the part of guests, who often now are expected to pony up non-token gifts for both shower and wedding (or shower and christening, in the case of baby-related events.)  There’s a personal finance story for you – is it becoming more expensive these days to be a doting aunt or cousin of a college kid and now friend of a new pet-owner?

Try a new take on this piece that toted up the cost of being a wedding guest; which as this NBC News article noted last spring it’s up to $592.





Quirky business features: Carnies, damsels, scams and beer

It’s been a month or so since the last edition of Quicktips and those scraps of paper are piling up again in my notebook.

From the sober to the silly, here are a few story nuggets you may want to add to your near-term lineup:

State Fairs.  How did that sneak up?  Summer 2014 is heading for the home stretch and many states and counties will begin holding agricultural fairs and other festivals soon.  

Minnesota State Fair ferris wheel in sunset

Sunset added a golden glow to the Minnesota state fair in 2013. Photo: MJIPhotos

On a serious note, these harvest-oriented events (or what’s left of that aspect in between the carny rides, rock concert and food stands) aren’t a bad time to take stock of the future of agriculture in your state or region.

What are the tensions between the market value of farmland – which the U.S. Department of Agriculture just reported is up 8 percent year over year – and the economics/aspirations of the next generation of family farmers?  Who’s snapping up farmland in your area and for what purpose?  How are environmental and animal rights concerns shaping the farming agenda in your area?  The agricultural fairs are a great opportunity to cultivate sources among farm families and industry officials.

On a less serious note, who wouldn’t enjoy a profile about the job of being an itinerant carny, sleeping in a tractor-trailer bunkhouse and operating the Ferris Wheel or Tilt-a-Whirl?  What do these jobs pay, how long do workers stay in them and what are the pros and cons?  Something tells me it’s not all fun and games — here’s a USA Today story from last year, “Migrant carnival workers need protection, advocates say,” that’ll give food for thought.  Many people might be surprised to know that thousands of workers are here on temporary visas doing these difficult jobs.

Here’s a directory of state fairs from About.com and a more extensive listing of events from Festivals.com. Don’t forget that at least in the northern tier, Renaissance Faires and other reenactment shows are getting set for a last hurrah as well.

Corporate inversion.  That’s the current buzz, highlighted last week when Walgreen’s backed off its plan to move its headquarters overseas; this interesting corporate inversion graphic produced for the office of U.S. Rep. Sander Levin gives a timeline of inversions and is worth scanning to see if any local corporate names are on their; you could do a follow-up on how any moves have affected local workers and communities.

Your state’s booze profile.  Legal marijuana stories are in vogue but traditional highs like beer and wine still pack an economic wallop; the Beer Institute, an industry trade group, was recently out with state-by-state data about who drinks what; North Dakota is the leader when it comes to brew, but Washington D.C. drinkers outpace the nation in wine consumption.  (Wonder why?)  Consumers love stories that reflect their own behavior back to them; consider checking with the state’s liquor commission for sales data by ZIP code – it’s fun to graph which communities favor Meister Brau vs. Grey Goose, and so on.

Phishing.  There was a funeral home phishing scam making the e-mail rounds a few months back; another one trumpeting “Notice to appear in court” is making its way round, and a consumer brief to this effect might be in order.  In addition to consumer advocates, you might want to talk with psychologists and marketing experts about the sort of buzzwords that get even savvy people to click.  Fear of running afoul of the law, death, money – the scamsters seem pretty shrewd about tapping into primal anxieties, especially those affecting older people who so often are targets of these crimes.

And, like everything else consumer, phishing is going mobile, with texts and alerts tricking the unwary.



Racetrack accident highlights pros and cons for corporate sports sponsors

It’s been a rough stretch for corporate sponsors of sporting events, who’ve had to react to public relations fiascos ranging from Lance Armstrong’s drugging revelations to the racist remarks by the soon-t0-be former L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling. 

Tony Steward sponsors

Photo: Matthew O'Haren, USA TODAY Sports

Now, a motorsports incident over the weekend has set the stage for another dilemma for corporate underwriters of auto racing.  In case you haven’t heard, one racer died Saturday night after exiting his crashed vehicle and being struck by the car of NASCAR giant Tony Stewart, whom the deceased competitor, Kevin Ward, apparently blamed for causing him to wreck.  The incident is under investigation by local law enforcement and as headlines proliferated  Stewart’s team hastily backtracked on their initial claim that racing would be “business as usual” for a marquee event on Sunday. 

The black eye for a major NASCAR star may prove to be an embarrassment for major sponsors, as USA Today reports in “Ripple effects for Stewart, NASCAR sponsors could be huge.”  As USA Today writes, “In NASCAR, drivers are corporate spokesmen expected to deliver a company’s message with a clean image. Though Stewart is a pitchman extraordinaire whose blue-collar persona offers appeal, Ward’s death is the latest of several on- and off-track incidents that have raised questions about why he always seems caught in a maelstrom of controversy.”

Clearly if your area is home to any of the household names that sponsor Stewart and other NASCAR drivers, from Bass Pro Shops to Coca-Cola to Go Daddy, you’ll want to check in to see what they are hearing from consumers and how they are handling public input, pro-Stewart or con.   Here’s a piece from the American Marketing Association on the loyalty of NASCAR fans and their desirability from the standpoint of corporate sponsors.  What does it take to affect those ties?  That might be an interesting question for local marketing experts.

The article also addresses the potential role of sponsors in determining the damage control strategy following an incident of negative publicity.   If you have any local companies which are household-name sponsors of professional sports, it might be an interesting moment to check in on trends in the expectations and roles of sponsors and the competitors who represent them publicly. Are your area firms relying more or less on sports sponsorships these days to get their word out? 

SponsorHub is a company that claims to analyze the return on investment of corporate sponsorships and would be a helpful source in explaining how corporations make choices about allying themselves with sports figures and what they expect in return.  Here’s another sponsorship consultant whom you might contact for context and explanatory information.

Or, if your area is home to a local NASCAR team, it might be interesting the recap some of the business of this very wealthy sport for local fans.   Forbes values the Stewart-Haas team, which in addition to Stewart features the popular Danica Patrick and other drivers, at $148 million, up 20 percent year over year and No. 4 among all NASCAR teams.  You might peruse this Business of NASCAR portal on the Forbes site for local ties your audience may have interest in.

Here’s a Bleacher Report piece on wacky NASCAR sponsors in history. 

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