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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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Costly ‘debt repair’ programs don’t make student loans vanish

Watching the Weather Channel the other day, hoping for a drop of rain, my ears pricked up at a commercial for the Student Loan Repairman, one of many companies that claims it can stop wage garnishment, “cut loan payments in half” and otherwise ease patrons’ debt burden.

Hire Me! graduateWith many recent grads confronting the reality of making payments this summer, and lots of critics of President Obama’s recently announced income-based student loan repayment plan pointing out that it doesn’t help everyone – Time.com says it “leaves many out in the cold,” including those with private and parent-borrowed PLUS loans — you might do a consumer service soon by educating audiences about these firms offering to do, for a price, what they mostly can do themselves.

In 2013 the National Consumer Law Center published a report, “Searching for Relief: Desperate Borrowers and the Growing Student Loan ‘Debt Relief’ Industry.”   The 38-page (PDF) full report is well worth a read; its two major findings are that these companies are “mischaracterizing government programs as their own” and that they are charging high fees for things that are available for free.

I perused the websites of a few of these relief firms and indeed there is clever  use of language, with the word “federal” thrown around quite freely by some, that would mislead unwary or unsophisticated consumers into thinking the firms were some sort of government-sanctioned entities.

The NCLC report says some borrowers were charged up-front fees as much as $1,600 in addition to ongoing maintenance fees.

You might want to start by contacting your state’s education department and attorney general – this spring the Arkansas attorney general’s office, for example, published an alert saying that the “industry is ripe for scams and fraud,” and the New York attorney general this year established a Student Protection Unit that is investigating misleading advertising, fees and other issues at 13 companies.

Why not see what’s being advertised in your area (Google a state or city name and ‘student loan relief’) and quiz the companies about terms, conditions and services?  As well as talking with lenders, regulators and law enforcement officials about concerns they may have.

Don’t forget there are lots of legitimate loan forgiveness programs out there; MSNBC reports that enrollment has been soaring in programs for public-sector employees, for example. The FinAid.org site offers a comprehensive round-up of programs.

For background, here’s a Credit.com round-up of “9 student loan rights you need to know,” including things like early repayment, deferral and deducting the interest on federal loans from income tax liability.

And for context, here’s a Motley Fool article with a somewhat contrarian view of the student loan “crisis” – one that echoes a recent Upshot column in the New York Times, “The reality of student debt is different from the clichés.” Both are based on a Brookings report and the NYT piece says that most student borrowers end up less than $20,000 in debt.

Still, that looms large on an entry-level salary and anything financial writers can do to steer anxious borrowers away from costly “relief” is a service.

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Does the summer home sales bounce help furniture dealers, related industries?

Furniture Delivery

Source: Room & Board video.

With existing home sales for May posting their best gain since 2011, as USA Today reports, and this week’s new home sales report expected to show a modest increase, according to Business Insider, you might want to take a mid-year checkup of the real estate market’s spin-off effect on other lines of business.

I was intrigued, for example, to spot this report that says furnture sales are perking up; CBS MarketWatch says “Good sign for housing? Furniture and related sales at six-year high,” and says home furnishings hit $8.55 billion in May.  (Note the tip about finding this “nugget” in the Commerce Dept.’s monthly retail sales report; it’s always a good one to mine for trends.)

Furniture might sound like kind of a ho-hum economic indicator but when you think about it, how often do consumers shell out for these big-ticket items?  They’re important reflections of both the household and the community economy and worth a look.  Why not check in with sellers of furntiure, appliances, flooring and other durable goods for insights into their industry — are increased sales driving any job creation, for example — and what they’re seeing in the home market.  Size trends, for example — are smaller versions of dining tables, beds, cabinetry and TVs being purchased by apartment and condo dwellers, or are consumers seeking the large-scale pieces that fit better in new-construction “McMansion” size homes?

Traditional furniture showrooms have dwindled the past decade or two, replaced by sales of assemble-yourself pieces from big box discounters and specialty stores like IKEA.  Are any remaining furnture sellers in your area hanging on, and if so, how?  And if they’ve managed to survive the onslaught of no-frills bricks-and-mortar competitors, what can they do to compete with online sellers?  This Furniture Today report says Overstock.com is report a “surge in online furniture sales.”   Are local stores developing more sophisticated websites or other ways to level the playing field?  What are the logistics and delivery hurdles compared to, say, an Overstock or Amazon?

In addition to economy furniture sold through the mail, what’s going on in the higher end?  Talk with interior designers and others about demand for classic and even artisanal furnishings.  And don’t forget the used-furniture market, from thrift shops to antique malls.

Furniture World and Furniture Today are industry publications you might find helpful; here’s the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ portal to the Furniture and Home Furnishings Stores pages; note that employment and hours are ticking up.  If you scroll down to the data on establishments and click the little dinosaur icon for historical data, you’ll see that the number of establishments has plummeted from more than 60,000 pre-recession to about 49,000 now.  You might want to ask a BLS analyst to run the numbers for your state.

Meanwhile another interesting angle is that of office furniture demand. The Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association forecasts a 6.8 percent uptick this year and 11.3 percent growth in 2015.  The BIFMA’s searchable member list will help you find related companies in your state.  Not only can checking on local sales help you gauge expansion (or at least the willingness to spend some capital) on the part of area companies, but you might also spot some interesting trends for business features.  For example, tell the worker bees in your audience about the latest in open-plan office design or stand-up workstations, for example.  Here’s one design firms’ list of top office trends to get you going.

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Quicktips: Manure expos, funky funerals and travel deals for single parents

Maybe this column should be called “quirky tips” instead of “quick tips,” because I can’t resist sharing some of the interesting and offbeat jottings from my notebook.  Hopefully you can embrace the oddities and spin an idea or two into a colorful summertime business feature.

First off, my ears perked up the other day when a radio host jovially mentioned the “manure convention.”  Really?  Yep.

you udder buy some manure  sign

Apparently this scout troop in Glenayre sold pies rather than cookies.

I looked it up and there is indeed a North American Manure Expo (“Professionalism in Nutrient Management”) coming up July 8 in Springfield, Missouri.  It’s promoted by the Professional Nutrient Applicators Association of Wisconsin (PNAAW), which promotes the environmentally friendly application of liquid manure to cropland.

No joke, manure management is an industry and one that increasingly is seen as important and complicated for farmers and growers in light of changing climate patterns.  This recent Dairy Herd Management article declares  “As we all know, manure management does not end when the manure leaves the barn” and goes on to talk about how climate trends affect the storage, use as fertilizer and other factors regarding the fate of animal waste.

Poultry farms and specialty livestock breeders might also find a market for their stock’s output; for those not commercializing their animals’ waste, specialty removal services can handle “up to 1,000 horses” as this hauler says.

This eXtention article notes on “Manure Value and Economics” says the substance is a valuable source of nutrients and fast becoming a source of renewable energy.  There’s even a smartphone “Manure calculator” app (99 cents in the iTunes store) to help farmers figure out the application rate and value of their herd’s waste. In fact if you’re on the tech beat, there’s an amazing array of software and spreadsheets available to farmers (like the “Odor Footprint Tool”) that could make for some quirky but informative biz pieces; see this University of Nebraska page for examples and check with your own state’s extension service and agriculture department.  What kind of businesses out there provide these tools?

Quirky tourism.

OK, if guano doesn’t grab you as a summertime feature, how about niche travel services and packages?  I saw mention the other day of a Carribbean cruise for old-time radio enthusiasts complete with radio-play stage shows and other activities.  There’s so-called “dark tourism” in which travelers seek out macabre or tragic spots to visit; here’s a recent Calgary Herald piece about assassination sites and there’s even an Institute for Dark Tourism Research.  What other oddball travel options can you scare up for readers?

On a lighter note, it seems that travel geared at accommodating single parents is on the upswing; here’s a recent press release from a Riviera Maya resort that waives the usual single supplement fee for adults traveling solo with their children.  Travel expert Peter Greenberg rounds up “the best travel package deals for single parents.” Why not check with resorts and attractions in your area, or those popular with folks from your region, about what they’re doing to accommodate this growing demographic.

School’s out, time to hit the back-to-school sales.

Yes, it’s finally happened; retailers are touting b-to-s sales before students have barely had their first Popsicle or run through a sprinkler.  As Time.com reports, a number of major merchants already have launched sales, and the Wall Street Journal says Staples has announced a “back to school” price matching program that aims to compete with Amazon.com as well as bricks and mortar competitors.  How do consumers feel about this sort of seasonal creep, and what do marketing experts think?  Can these bold attention-getting ploys backfire by exasperating potential buyers?

Here’s an interesting piece on Search Engine Watch about consumer habits that says July indeed is prime time for online searches related to the fall school shopping season.  And don’t forget while you’re at it to check on the status of any sales tax holidays in your state aimed at b-to-s business; some start in July and the peak seems to be the first week in August.

Putting the ‘fun’ in funeral.

In case you missed this home-page eye-catcher in the New York Times, it’s a piece about funeral trends that include posing the deceased as they were in life; complete with a cigarette and a can of beer in one recent New Orleans mortuary.

I couldn’t bear to set it aside for my annual “business of death” blog post this fall but one way you might spin it for a summertime angle is taking a look at the career possibilities in the death care industry, as high school and college grads ponder their occupational options.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts 12 percent growth (about average for all occupations) for morticians and the American Board of Funeral Service Education offers a searchable database of mortuary science programs nationwide. It also offers scholarships.

NJ.com reported last week on a new mortuary science career program started at an area community college in anticipation of a Baby Boomer “death bubble” and says retired police and firefighters are going into the business as a second career.  More women are joining, too. It’s certainly an occupation that can’t be outsourced.  The Orange County Register ran a similar piece about the funeral director career on June 13.  Keep in mind that cosmetologists often moonlight at funeral parlors preparing remains for viewing with make-up and hair services; that might be another angle to pursue in light of the “tableau” trend the NYT reported on.  What about the props and decorations; who provides those?

And here are some factoids about the industry from the National Funeral Directors Association.

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Fourth of July stories sparkle on any business beat

Already 2014 is about half over and the Fourth of July holiday is speeding toward us like a runaway locomotive.  It’s the make-it or break-it bellwether for many summer tourism businesses and particularly interesting this year because the Fourth falls on a Friday, making for an automatic three-day-weekend for many workers.

According to Orbitz, many people will be tacking on additional days off to the weekend and it’s shaping up to be the busiest travel weekend of the year, with twice as much travel taking place despite airfare and hotel costs about 5 percent higher than last year.

Obviously a snapshot of local tourism is a must-do for this holiday;  in addition to resorts and theme parks, don’t forget about campgrounds, vacation home rentals, AirBnB bookings, RV and motor home rentals and other indicators of vacation activity.  Until reporting for this blog post I didn’t know about Boatbound, a P2P rental marketplace kind of like AirBnB; this report says Washington, D.C. leads the nation in such bookings; why not contact Boatbound for information about your market?  Don’t forget about glamping venues too, as I mentioned in a recent blog post.

Workplace stories can be interesting, again especially with the long-weekend factor this year.  Check in with area businesses about how competitive vacation requests are accommodated and bala

NYCity fireworks

Photo: ShutterbugMike on Flickr

nced with staffing needs, for example.  Are workers feeling a bit more secure this year than in recent years, in demanding time off?

Also keep in mind opportunities for service providers like house sitter and pet sitters.  And even take a look behind the scenes at pageants and parades – are equipment rental companies or firms that provide sound engineering and other production support getting a boost this season?  What’s it like to produce a parade, community show or other July 4th celebration?

 

Fireworks are sort of the de rigeur story of the Fourth.  You can find a pertinent angle on most beats including health care, transportation and even casino or sports as those venues use more and more firepower to amp up enthusiasm.

Here’s a Huffington Post piece from last year about “The ridiculous amount Americans are spending on fireworks this year,” which pegs the number near $650 million.  If you want to go beyond the roadside fireworks shack retail story, check out the website of the American Pyrotechnics Association, which offers industry facts and figures and might be able to direct you to local members.  Where are most fireworks manufactured, for example?

It’s also apparently a popular hobby; this directory from The Fireworks Alliance lists a number of regional clubs that may offer you leads to people who create fireworks for fun and in turn to the chemical companies and other niche suppliers that might be ripe for profiles.

This list of distributors from the Pyrotechnics Guild International seems to reflect mostly importers; how does that work?  What are the lead times for inventory, import and transport regulations, etc?  Here are some US suppliers of firing systems and other gear – a technology story could be interesting if that’s your beat.  If you cover transportation, what are the special needs for carrying a load of fireworks or other explosives by truck?  What is the FAA stance on fireworks?

Goodwill Store deals on 4th of July

A Goodwill store in New Jersey offered deals on 4th of July.

Other retail stories of course are the sales of the Stars and Stripes  (one Realtor in my area gets up at the crack of dawn and sticks a small American flag on a stick into the lawns of  hundreds of houses as a marketing gimmick).  Party supplies, swim gear, patio furniture, grills – all the accoturement of the celebration of summer will get their last best chance in the coming week.

Keep your eyes and ears open for quirky angles.  I saw personal misters that hook to the garden hose being featured as this year’s must-have in local big-box stores; what other indulgences are hot this year?  And  I spoke the other day with a woman who’s a seamstress for a regional outdoor awning manufacturer, for the past month she’s been leaving for work at 5 a.m. as the sewing machines whir to meet demand for residential and commercial awnings ahead of Fourth of July fests and summer season at sidewalk bistros.  That would make for an interesting small biz story that reflects the uptick in the local economy.

Summer apparel, swimwear and accessories seem to peak at this time, with clearance sales beginning shortly after and no doubt back-to-school clothing appearing on store mannequins by July 15.   It’s a good time to take the pulse of summer revenue at malls and strip centers in your area that feature traditional chain boutiques.

Food is a very interesting angle – when you think of it, do makers of  hot dogs, chips and dip go into overdrive in June to meet demand?  Do more cattle go for that big ride in the country in anticipation of holiday burger fests?  The Produce News reports that Independence Day is bigger than the Super Bowl and Cinco de Mayo for California advocado growers; Americans are expected to snarf nearly 105 million pounds of the produce in salads, dips and salsas.  Who knew?  Why not talk with local agriculture officials and growers about the holiday’s effect on their sales?

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Consumers itch and businesess profit as mosquitos swarm

Mosquito Squad truck

This year's heavy rains have left perfect breeding conditions for mosquitos. Screen shot: WCCO-TV

As one of those lucky people generally ignored by stinging and biting insects, it was dismaying a week or two ago to be covered in itchy red welts after just a little while outdoors planting flower pots.  A few days later the graveside rites at a funeral I attended were actually cut short as mourners slapped, scratched, muttered and finally fled – with the full blessing of the officiant — the buzzing swarms seeking fresh blood.

In other words, this year is a bad bug season for anyone whose community isn’t paralyzed with drought, and as CBS affiliate WCCO in Minnesota reports, that means “Mosquito Squad Business Booms.”

That story refers to the type of service that sprays residential properties to combat mosquitos; you also could look into the companies that spray on behalf of municipalities or large commercial operations like theme parks, golf courses etc.  Here’s a just-out National Geographic piece, “Hitting mosquitoes where it hurts,” about the tactics of large-scale skeeter control. Ask state and local officials about spending on mosquito control by your state, county or municipality.

Like any industry, there’s a trade group for this: the American Mosquito Control Association offers a lot of industry info on its website (Mosquito Awareness Week is coming up June 22-28) and likely can direct you to local members.  What are they seeing this year in terms of demand, consumer spending, employment and so on?   Many of these operations appear to be franchises; I got one of those coupon packs in the mail the other day with several ads for local outlets of national chains.  Is it a good or growing franchise opportunity?

Mosquito-borne diseases are of concern this year, with even dengue fever showing up in Florida. Talk with local public health officials about West Nile threat and other disease concerns; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers more info on its site.

Even with the need for disease control, many people are uncomfortable with widespread use of killing chemicals; you might want to talk with your state’s agriculture department and other regulators, as well as university etymologists, environmental advocates and others about how pest-control firms are regulated, what’s in the chemicals used, what the spraying does long-term to insect mutation and to human beings.  What about people with chemical sensitivities or respiratory illness; how do public venues such as ball parks accommodate these patrons, if at all?

Ask hardware stores and other retailers about sales of insect-repellant products, most of which contain DEET – here’s a recent Popular Science article on that chemical’s safety and efficacy.

You might check out healthy-living shops for alternatives to DEET-based preparations, like live citronella plants, candles, wristbands, herbs, anti-bug soaps and the ever-popular lore that wearing a scented dryer sheet will repel biting insects.  Blowing fans are another eco-friendly way to keep the bugs at bay, if you’re doing a factbox.

Don’t forget about pets, too – are vets seeing an uptick (pun intended!) in demand for protective potions for dogs and cats?  Or worse, an increase in heartworm and other maladies caused in animals by insects?  And what do commercial livestock growers do to protect their animals from suffering and disease?

Guy in mask spraying for mosquitos

There's big business, in some regions, in fumigating the yard. Screen shot: WCCO-TV, Minnesota

 

 

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Self-publishing industry empowers local authors, service providers

Several of the best new books I’ve read lately have had one thing in common: They’ve lacked any sort of publisher’s imprint on the inside cover or title pages.

Self-publishing, in either hardcopy or e-book format, is a fast-growing sector, driven by authors too impatient to wait for a traditional publisher’s verdict on their work, or optimistic they can market their tome and drive sales without standard publishing infrastructure.

self publishing books A survey from late 2013 by the industry analyst Bowker found that self-published titles in 2012 jumped 60 percent over 2011, and that e-books accounted for 40 percent of self-published works in the same year.  This Huffington Post blogger predicts that self-published titles will comprise at least 50 percent of e-books by 2020, and echoing analysis I’ve seen elsewhere, notes that readers aren’t looking to publishers’ imprints as a sign of quality, like they used to.

One thing you need to do for audiences right off the bat is distinguish between self-publishing and vanity publishing; the latter usually involves the writer making a cash payment to a “publisher” who promises to print the book.   Traditionally this has been seen as something of a scam, taking advantage of hopeful amateur writers.  In self-publishing, the author purchases services on an as-needed basis and the transactions are transparent; this blog post from About.com does a good job of explaining the difference between old-style vanity press publishing and today’s indie or self publishing realm; you should probably generate a fact box with such information if you’re writing a how-to or personal finance piece.   Here are some caveats from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, too.

Industry bible Publisher’s Weekly forecast in January that “author service companies” that provide design, editing and other advice to DIY authors would be growing apace, as well.   That’s another small business niche you might explore; are people making any kind of a living editing and designing others’ books and novels?  This service provider directory from BookWorks, a professional group for authors and those related to the self-publishing trade, certainly is extensive; unfortunately the list isn’t sortable by state or ZIP code but I’d imagine a Craigslist search would turn up some editors, proofreaders and so on in your area.  I couldn’t locate a reputable state-by-state directory but found local print-on-demand firms via a Google search.

You also could check with local chapters of the Mystery Writers of America and the Romance Writers of America to find authors and industry members (literary agents, for example, often belong — how’s their business faring as more authors cut out the middlemen in favor of targeting readers directly?) for their take on the pros and cons of DIY.  Self-publishing of erotica is hot in more ways than one, especially following the success of ”50 Shades of Grey.”  Publisher’s Weekly says successful self-published writers of steamy tomes can rake in $100,000 a month purveying their stories online; can you locate any local indie authors willing to provide details on their business model and tips for would-be rivals?

Electronic or print editions

Hopeful independent authors need to decide whether to market electronic versions of their books (usually through Amazon) or print versions or both.  Again, talk with local folks about the pros and cons — and there is plenty of online advice from sources like Writers and Editors or in articles like “A publisher’s perspective on profits: Ebooks vs. print.”  If you’re looking for business-model information, don’t forget to talk to analysts of the traditional publishing arena.

And note that even Publisher’s Weekly has begun reviewing independently published books; here’s a link to its BookLife site that will give you more insight into the industry.

This blog post by mystery writer J.A. Konrath is five years old but will give you some background info to start with; he posts actual numbers for what he earned on e-books sold through his publisher vs. e-books he sold directly himself; the 2009 disparity between the two figures (he makes a lot more selling directly) is kind of amazing.  I wonder though, as more and more e-books and authors are out there, is the potential income per author becoming very diluted?

How to market your books

Marketing techniques are another angle you can focus on; how are indie authors selling their wares?  Websites, social media, speaking engagements, selling directly to libraries (which offer a lot of e-books these days) and getting space in bookstores are some tactics.  What about special-interest rallies or trade shows; one of the books I recently read was by a woman who threw over her traditional life to become a full-time RVer.  She’s thinking of asking campground sundries shops and other related venues to sell her memoirs.

How-to books, software that helps construct plots and other goods that purport to reveal the secrets of a successful writing career have been around since they were advertised on matchbook covers; today’s equivalent seems to be apps, like WriteChain, which prompts authors to meet word-count goals.  If you’re doing a personal finance story about the writing life, be sure to include expenses for items like apps, professional memberships, research and other costs of doing business.

And here’s an AARP article about avoiding self-publishing scams.

 

 

 

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As eyes turn to World Cup, how does local soccer spending rank?

With soccer’s 2014 World Cup matches kicking off this week in Brazil,  “futebol” as it’s known in Rio is going to dominate a lot of sports talk over the next month.  This every-four-year event is  a good opportunity to delve into the business of sports, and soccer in particular, in your region.

Kids playing soccer

Photo: Joel Agee

Obviously if you have a professional team in your region, you can recap attendance figures, ticket sales and other metrics.  But even if you don’t, there’s  soccer story on practically any beat. Where is interest waning and where is it growing, both among viewers of professional sports and participants in youth or other organization sports leagues?

On the local level, for example, American tackle football, for example, is battling safety concerns as more information about head injuries comes to light.  Golf is suffering from the game’s slow pace compared to many family’s time-pressed lifestyle.  Baseball and other traditional pastimes are losing ground, too, as the Wall Street Journal reported – and even in soccer, participation rates are flattening out.  What does this bode for places that sell gear, for the venues that profit from games, for coaches, transportation companies and all of the other infrastructure that supports recreational sports?  Stil, thugh, as TheStreet.com reports, “U.S. soccer is bigger than you think,” and

Ideas on a variety of beats:

Advertising.  The 2010 World Cup reached one-third of all American viewers, Nielsen reported, and this release ranks the 10 cities with the highest ratings; perhaps Nielsen would provide more recent soccer-viewing data for your region.  And  Bloomberg reports that U.S. ad spending during soccer matches has jumped 43 percent since the 2010 tournament.  Check with area cable providers — does this trickle down to them?

Sports medicine.  For those of you on the health care beat, how about a piece on the prevalence, treatment and cost of common soccer injuries?  Sports medicine is a growing specialty at major health sytems; what are they seeing in terms of soccer trends? Is this a lucrative niche for orthopedic surgeons and the like?  What are insurance companies paying out for soccer-related sprains and such?   This 2007 research paper in the Journal of Athletic Training indicates that certain injuries are on the rise in “skeletally immature” patients (kids) and notes that reparing torn anterior cruciate ligaments (ACL) is a $2 billion a year business in the United States.

Fan at Columbus Crew vs. KC Wizards championship game

Fan at Columbus Crew vs. KC Wizards championship game. PHOTO: Sameh Fahmi

Insurance.  What about insurance carried by leagues; some seems to cover “excess” medical liability above what the player’s own health insurance, if any, will pay for.  How does that work?  What is the insurance cost to leagues and what are trends?  What about liability for coaches, organizers, venues?  As concerns about the lifelong ramifciations of sports injuries grows, are promoters and coaches under more scrutiny — and do they need more personal liability protection?   I found a lot of sites marketing “sports instructor liability insurance” that seems to apply.

Bars and restaurants.   According to this Forbes piece, the number of Americans who claim to have viewed, attended or listened to a major soccer match has risen 32 percent since 2010.   More TV networks are airing the matches and more matches at that — nearly 4,000 in 2013.

So you might want to talk with area sports bars and restaurants about demand in general by soccer fans and what they are expecting for the month of World Cup events.  Keep in mind that Brazil’s time zone is only an hour ahead of U.S. eastern time, making it easier for fans to watch games live than when the tourney is held in more far-flung venues.

(While you’re there, ask what beer distributors and other vendors are doing with collateral marketing material like signs, coasters, posters and other paraphernalia — or talk with area bottlers and brewers.)  SoccerBars.com offers a searchable directory of bars worldwide where fans can watch the sport.  And here’s a Baltimore Sun article about fans using apps to keep track of matches. .

Viewing parties at bars, private homes (ask caterers, liquor store operators about any match-related bookings) and coordinated by pro soccer teams are another aspect of spending related to the World Cup.  Read here, for example, about the viewing events the L.A. Galaxy team is going to host; these will all create business for venue operators, equipment renters, food service and more.  Note the blurb in the release about a cooperative effort between the team and area food critics to identify eating establishments (related to World Cup team nationalities) where fans can watch the action.  Take that as a lead: Ferret out the World Cup spending and partying action in ethnic neighborhoods and other places where fans identify with the players.  Here’s a Baltimore Sun article, for example, about

Personal finance.  We all know the proverbial “soccer mom” stereotype surrounding suburban families’ attachment to youth soccer, but what does it really cost to enroll one or more kids in youth soccer?  A money piece about the cost of a year or a span of childhood years in soccer (and compared with other activities from baseball to band) might be informative for families pondering their offsprings’ extracurricular options.   So little gear is involved in soccer compared to other pasttimes — what if any are the opportunities for saving?   This CNBC report from January, “Spending big on kids’ sports? You’re not alone,” is helpful; it says the travel and tourism spending alone by youth sports participants generates $7 billion a year in spending.

Why not ask some families to profile their spending on youth soccer?  (My standard caveat here:  Make sure you see receipts, invoices, club/team contracts, credit-card statements and the like; people’s memories tend to be less precise than their actual financial documents.)

 

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Beyond crash headlines: Why does trucker pay still reward maximum miles?

It’s always surprising how little the trucking industry is covered by the financial press, considering just about all of the material goods used by consumers and businesses has been on a truck at one time or another; the supply chain is an integral part of any business.

Drowsy Drivers signUsually we only hear about trucking following tragic accidents like the recent one that killed one person and landed actor and comedian Tracy Morgan in intensive care.  Then, for a time, the media jumps on board with coverage like “Truck driver in Tracy Morgan crash hadn’t slept in 24 hours,” and “Tracy Morgan crash fuels debate over tired truckers.”

In turn the industry goes on the defensive and a bit of public discourse takes place, then quickly dies down until the next fatal accident.  But I’ve never really seen a good follow-up piece of journalism that clearly explains the business model for trucking companies, the business model for truck drivers (who either can be employees of freight businesses or independent owner-operators) and why on earth the pay structure is one that relies on covering the most miles in the shortest period of time.   

There seems to be a constant tension between regulators and the industry with nitpicking over the minutia of rule-making and enforcement instead of the most straightforward approach:  Encourage change in the industry pay structure so that making more money is not dependent on dodging rules and driving 600 to 700 miles a day. I don’t pretend to understand all of the metrics of the industry but it would be interesting to get some clear, lay-friendly answers from trucking executives as to why the pay-per-mile paradigm still rules.

 

NBC News delved a little deeper with “Why are long-haul truckers so tired?” It explored some of the labrynthian and complex rules that govern what are known as “hours of service” rules – the laws set by the U.S. Department of Transportation that attempt to keep sleepy drivers off the road.  Here’s the relevant link to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration that explains the rules; note last year’s press release about updated regulations aiming to reduce driver fatigue.  If you read the summary of the rule, you’ll see that it’s rather complex and compliance — which literally requires sleep during certain hours of the day – must be difficult.


“What about businesses that have
a lot of freight to be hauled,
from manufacturers to retailers to food distributors –
do they put any safety requirements
on their shippers? ”

Again, talk to law enforcement, owner-operators, truck-drivers-for-hire and other interested parties about compliance issues and what they suggest might help alleviate fatigue and distraction.  Some carriers use electronic means to record driver hours; others keep a paper logbook that must be produced on demand to officials.  Federal regulators earlier this year said they want to mandate the electronic logbooks, which are harder to falsify.  (A side note, defending drivers who have committed logbook violations or falsifications is a legal niche you might want to explore; what do attorneys say about why their clients cheat?  Just Google ‘attorney logbook violation’ and a geographic term to find lawyers near you.)

Historically, before GPS could pinpoint a rig’s location at any time, or before black boxes were available to track driver behavior, and just pre-instant communication in general, one can envision that paying drivers an hourly wage might cause unscrupulous people to mosey slowly in or der to inflate their pay.  Now, though, with weather, traffic and location information readily available to employers and dispatchers, why not adapt?  It makes sense to reward efficiency but paying drivers by the mile seems a surefire way to encourage pouring on the power at the expense of safety.

Drowsy Drivers sign and truck

Photo: Garrett on flickr

Some companies do put speed governors on vehicles so that drivers can’t exceed, say, 64 mph.  That puts a finite limit on the number of hours possible during a legal shift behind the wheel, so why, I wonder, wouldn’t a fixed salary be suitable for a driver in a rig thus equipped?  If a driver is slowed by traffic, by inefficient loading at a customer site or other factors beyond his or her control, the company would absorb the cost rather than the driver.  Again, there may be perfectly logical or valid reasons for the current pay paradigms but with so much focus on drivers pressing the limit of speed and wakefulness, let’s ask freight companies to explain.

Payscale.com says the median truck driver wage is $16 an hour; note the ranges and also note the list of major employers and the regional variations if you’re planning to localize.  And here’s a directory of truck stops nationwide if you want to head out and talk directly to people on the road today.  If you use satellite radio, I find the Road Dog Trucking channel to be informative, particularly its morning drive time and mid-afternoon shows.

Trade groups include the Owner Operator Independent Drivers Association and America’s Independent Truckers Association as well as the American Trucking Associations (plural is correct on ‘associations’) which has issued a statement on the recent crash and also has a just-out trucking trends report.

The American Society of Transportation and Logistics might offer some area members as interesting sources of commentary as well.

Even if you don’t have any local trucking companies, what about businesses that have a lot of freight to be hauled, from manufacturers to retailers to food distributors – do they put any safety requirements on their shippers?  Are they willing to pay more for companies that reward safe-driving practices?

 

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Ties, tools, paternity leave: What fathers mean in the marketplace

Boy fishing with grandpa

Sometimes it's grandpa who gets to celebrate Father's Day. Photo: Jim Mullhaupt

The annual salute to dads comes up June 15, and like all traditional and manufactured holidays and observances, marketers are not shy about using it to spark consumer spending.  My e-mail inbox is clogged with frantic exhortations from national chains pushing grills, apparel, retro beer posters, tools, cheese-and-sausage packs and other delights for Pop — all on sale, of course.

Like last year, I was amused at Yankee Candle’s attempt to add a bit of macho to its line of scented candles; forget jasmine, vanilla and fresh-baked cookies — a catalog arrived with scratch-n-sniff panels so patrons can determine whether their patriarch would prefer his candle in “Camouflage,” “Riding Mower,” “Man Town” or “Bacon.”  You gotta give them credit for chutzpah!   I wonder what other traditionally feminine products are being repackaged for men; instead of wrench or a tie, for example, are more men receiving spa gift cards and the like for Father’s Day?

That might be an interesting angle to report.  Last year the New York Post reported that “More and more New York dads are asking for facials, Botox and neck lifts on Father’s Day,” and last week a rugged carpenter I employed proudly displayed the baby-soft results of his latest chemical face peel as he slathered on sunscreen and gave me tips on his favorite skincare line, which is a few notches above mine on the luxury scale.  What are spas, beauty-product kiosks, salons and cosmetic surgeons in your area seeing in terms of demand?

Despite the plethora of sales pitches, the National Retail Federation reports that Father’s Day falls fairly low on the holiday spending scale; its 2014 survey says “the average person will spend $113.80 on neckties, tools, electronics and other special gifts for dad, slightly down from $119.84 last year. Total spending for the holiday is expected to reach $12.5 billion.” USA Today reported on what not to buy dad:  What dad really wants for Father’s Day.

Father's Day cupcakes

The proprieter of Sugar Daze, L'Authentique Cupcake Américain à Paris made these cupcakes for Father's Day.

As the Chicago Tribune reported, that’s $7 billion less than American’s spend on Mother’s Day in May.  It would be interesting to parse the sociological reasons for that, and it’s also an interesting question to pose to your area’s merchants and restaurants;  do they see fewer people celebrating, or just celebrating Dad with lower-priced meals and gifts, and either way what are they doing to boost spending?

Dads in the workplace

Aside from the retail aspect, you might want to look at workplace issues related to fatherhood.

Paternity leave is back in the zeitgeist following publicity about the flak one baseball player received for choosing to attend the birth of his baby rather than play in season-opening games; the player, Daniel Murphy, was a White House guest this week, reviving the debate.   Why not survey your area’s largest employers, as well as a good sampling of small- and medium-sized businesses in your area, about parental leave policies.  Which are most generous, which offer paternity leave in addition to paid maternity leave and if they don’t, why not?   Audiences would probably appreciate a rundown on policies at corporate and public employers, in the form of a comparative clip-and-save graphic.   Here’s a handy round-up of state laws regarding family and medical leave from the National Conference of State Legislatures; few states require it but you can check on pending bills.

This Today.com report cites a Today survey and others about attitudes regarding paternity leave and the effect on men’s careers; the Boston College Center for Work and Family it refers to seems like an interesting source of research and experts if you’re delving deeper.   Here’s a similar report from the Washington Post about men’s reluctance to use leave when it’s offered.

 

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