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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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Christmas in July? Retailers wooing holiday spenders even earlier

How are we spending our summer vacation?   Prepping for back-to-school, Thanksgiving and Christmas, if the displays in retail stores are any indication.

Christmas in July, Germantown, Nashville

Even Santa turned out for the Half-Christmas in July Beer Festival in Nashville. Screenshot: WZTV

Consumers who didn’t buy their swimwear back in March probably found themselves picking through a clearance rack featuring a few “size 2 junior” mismatched bathing suit bottoms and tops the week before the Fourth of July.  That’s been standard for years, in the inscrutable ways of apparel stores.

But it was still a jolt on July 5, when I nipped out for a few quick errands, to see the dregs of the patriotic housewares and summery garden décor relegated to a few sparsely-populated clearance aisles at one of the major craft and sewing retailers.  Front and center was harvest-themed merchandise from dish towels to wall plaques, and the entire floral area was dominated by an autumnal palate, ceramic orange pumpkins and cornstalky fall foliage.

OK.  On to a big-box office supply retailer, where back-to-school mania was in swing.  And clicking through the TV line-up for a lazy weekend movie, the chick-lit channels were featuring holiday movies 24/7 for that festive Christmas in July feeling.

AdAge said June 20 “Get ready for Christmas creep: Walmart starts highlighting hot holiday gifts,” and notes that the world’s largest big-box chain already has held its holiday media event.

And WFIE in Indiana just reported “Retailers offering back to school sales earlier than ever before,” while the Harford Courant reports on Target’s new online gift registry for college-bound students. And its not just big-boxers licking their chops over sales of dorm-room décor and new notebooks; a business-to-business website asks its audience  “Is your small business targeting the college crowd?” and suggests that local merchants and service providers use tactics like loyalty discount cards and personal service to woo spenders.

A mid-year check-in on the so-called “creep” and how businesses are racing to beat one another to seasonal shopping dollars is an interesting and picturesque biz feature to pursue.

On a broader economic tack, quizzing retailers and other businesses about their expectation for the coming fourth-quarter consumer spending mania (back-to-school, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and other winter observances) is a way to check up on your local economy.  With unemployment ticking down, the stock market on a record roll, home sellers getting a decent buck for their properties and other measures of prosperity gaining, will 2014 be the year they’ve been waiting for since 2007?  Or will the fact that job growth is dominated by low-wage and part-time positions dampen demand; as Bloomberg noted following a disappointing May report, “Restrained consumer spending curbs U.S. growth optimism.”

Ask local merchants specifically how pending orders and inventory compare to their investments in previous years, are they expecting consumer demand to grow this year?   Are they stocking more high-end versions of their goods?  Planning any different promotions?   Hiring more help?

Travel bookings, resort reservations, catering and restaurant bookings/inquiries, reservations at inns and bed-and-breakfast homes (particularly during holiday festivals and home tours, if your area holds them) all might be telling bellwethers of consumer sentiment.

A different tack would be to ask: What is it about the consumer that we can hardly wait for a season to be over when it’s barely begun?  After all, the stores wouldn’t be offering this stuff if we weren’t buying it.  Who IS purchasing her Thanksgiving tableware in mid-July, and why?  Are they worried about narrowing selections later, or just uber-organized, or what?   Are back-to-school shoppers trying to stretch necessary purchases over several paychecks?  A couple of years ago, CNBC reported that “Despite the scorn, consumers embrace ‘Christmas creep,’ – the article offers some interesting insights and sources.  You can talk with marketing experts, consumers themselves, even consumer behavior experts at area business schools and social research departments. Are we responding to signals sent by merchants, or are they responding to us?


Drivers prepping for the holiday sift through roadside aid deals

With legions of Americans about to hit the road for a three-day weekend provided by the Independence Day holiday’s serendipitously falling on a Friday this year, you might want to take a look at  personal finance quirk related to roadside assistance plans.

AAA forecasts that 41 million people will travel more than 50 miles from home this weekend — and odds are that hundreds of thousands of these vacationers will find themselves in the breakdown lane with a flat tire or worse.  Many of them will put out a plea for a tire change, a tow or help.  But call … whom?

RV Dauphin Island

RV sits by the Gulf of Mexico on Dauphin Island, Alabama. Photo: faungg on Flickr

Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. wants you to call them; they’re just out with a new toll-free number , smartphone app and $40 annual service fee that will get you to free towing — with one catch:  Your tow truck will wheel you to a Goodyear auto repair shop.  Interesting marketing idea to launch just before the holiday.

Its a crowded field.  As the Reynolds Center’s Digital Director Robin Phillips recently pointed out, many consumers these days have overlapping roadside assistance coverage.  Gone are the days when AAA was the only provider; today’s motorists may be covered by — and unwittingly paying for — similar coverage from their automobile dealer or automaker, their cell phone plan, insurance policy, credit card and other vendors.

Motorists may wonder if it’s worth it to stay in one program — and which one is the best to call under a variety of scenarios.   Verizon, for example, charges $3 a month – if you already have AAA or a new-car-related program, should you opt out and save the $36 a year, which is hardly pocket change.

Is it worth it to stay in more than one program if you have to pay?  Surprisingly, it might be.   Check out this Consumer Reports piece that points out the different terms, coverage options and services provided by a variety of plans; it may makes sense for consumer to keep overlapping policies.

For example, as the report points out, auto club plans usually follow the policy holder no matter what vehicle he or she is in, so if you’re riding in a friend’s car when the battery dies, you still can summon help.  Cell phone sponsored plans apply to whomever has the phone in hand.  Some plans offer legal defense funds for traffic offenses (except for DUI) while others guarantee auto repairs.

Sounds like it might behoove consumers to spend a few minutes combing through their financial purchases, policies and subscriptions to determine what coverage they have and what the fine print is on each.  Then when misfortune strikes, they can contact the provider that makes the most sense in a given scenario.  A flat tire — who needs guaranteed engine repairs; you might want to call the company with the widest network.  Far from home in someone else’s vehicle; you might be glad you kept AAA as well.

Here’s an older but interesting Popular Mechanics article, “Who really provides your roadside assistance?”  that points out most of the non-AAA plans use a third-party provider and often the same one; the industry biggie is Agero and it handles roadside assistance for many automakers and other plan providers.

In addition to a personal finance piece about the ins and outs of roadside plans, you might want to do a contrarian holiday-weekend story about those who will be working, not loafing, including the tow-truck industry, auto repair shops and even hospital emergency room staffers –  all of those behind-the-scenes occupations that help travelers when the Fourth of July sizzle turns to fizzle.

Another question to ask of towing companies: Is it worth it to them to be affiliated with a roadside service?  It must be, if so many do, but what cut does the plan take?  Do consumers in plans get faster response time than those who just Google for the nearest wrecker?  What else is new or challenging in the tow-truck business model these days?




Helping readers if they’re getting stock market fever

U.S. stock market rallyThe U.S. stock markets are having a star-spangled week heading into the Independence Day holiday, as Reuters reports in “Dow, S&P end at records in fireworks before the Fourth.”

With headlines ablaze about major indices hitting never-before-seen heights, you might want to find some local angles to the Wall Street news.

First, it’s always interesting to muster up a big chart or graphic illustrating the year-to-date (or post-recession, or since-2006) share price performance of area companies. You can limit your list to companies headquartered in your area, but I’d suggest also including big local employers regardless of where their corporate seat is located. If your region is home to an airline hub, or an auto plant or a big resort operated by a household-name corporation, chances are its workers may hold its shares in their retirement plan and so might unrelated investors.

Here’s a nice example from the Chattanooga Times Free Press, “Stocks rise in first half of year despite declines by half of local companies.” Note that the story is accompanied by a very straightforward bar graph showing stocks of local interest either in red or black, depending on their year-to-date price situation. If you’ve got more resources, you could snazz up the presentation with corporate logos, number of local employees, CEO pay from the latest proxy statement, a blurb or two about YTD company news and other information.

The big question on readers’ minds is, “What do I do now?” Quite a few pundits are predicting that stocks – which have more than fully recovered since the recessionary market depths – are due for a big chill. The Dallas Morning News says “Bull market may be entering final stretch” and one of Forbes’ contributors is posting the dire “23 charts (that) prove stocks are heading for a devastating crash.”

I’ve never thought newspapers and weeklies should dabble in providing investing advice; the best you can do is direct readers to objective advisers (like fee-only, non-commissioned financial planners) or, if they can’t afford that, to relatively tried-and-true strategies like dollar-cost-averaging through employer-sponsored retirement accounts, or the Roth IRA at low-cost entities like Vanguard.

“If I haven’t been investing
in stocks, am I too late?
Is it a mistake to “buy high” ?”

You might be surprised at how well a basic glossary of terms would be received by your audience; there’s a whole crop of people out there who over the last eight years have ignored markets but now are intrigued by the soaring numbers. Even terms like “S&P 500” and “Dow” are a mystery to some, let alone the difference between taxable and tax-sheltered accounts and specialty items like the Solo 401(k) for individuals and self-employed people.

Why not offer, at least online, a primer in basic investing terms. And then enlist area certified financial planners and others to answer two basic questions for readers:

If I haven’t been investing in stocks, am I too late? Is it a mistake to “buy high”? It’s the rare financial adviser who will tell anyone not to invest in the market, but at least you can ask them to offer answers based on a variety of potential scenarios; a 25-year-old may want to go all-in on stocks given her 45-year time horizon; a 45-year-old might want to consider other options.

Don’t forget to make the point that a company match, if available, is a pretty good rate of return no matter what the general market does. And most people who say they “can’t afford” to invest in a 401(k) or similar vehicle will find that they can contribute 3 percent or 4 percent to a tax-sheltered defined contribution account without really affecting their take-home pay, because of the tax savings. Run those numbers on hypothetical wages or real readers’ paychecks and, in a nice big chart, show people that there may be more room for savings in their budget than they realize. (If they’re squeamish about stocks, 401(k)s offer other places to stash savings, like bond funds and cash accounts.)

I gritted my teeth and held on, and even kept contributing, through the depths of the recession and the slow recovery. Now what do I do with my gains? Again, the answer depends on age, the individual’s lifestyle plans, other income streams, tax liabilities and so on. Conjure up some scenarios for people in various demographics – or invite readers to submit real-life dilemmas – and ask financial pros to weigh in on when to cash out, and how. Rollover IRA? And where should the money go – to a safe but non-paying money market account, or an index fund, or bonds, or what? Should people use gains to pay off debt or a mortgage?

What are the key questions planners are hearing from clients, and what are the variables that affect their advice?



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.


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.


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.


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?


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




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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