Saturday, September 29, 2018

Points of Interest

It's the first thing I do when I get to the gas station. Before I open the fuel door. Before I select the grade of gas. Before I insert my credit card into the pump and punch in my zip code. Out of the bottom slot in my wallet I slide out my Speedy Rewards card and dip it into the machine. 

Just one thing: I'm not really sure why. 

If we were talking any one of the airline frequent flyer programs of which I am a member, that I would understand. Since these programs were first created back in the 1970's, they have morphed from simply giving out plaques and promotional materials to good customers to becoming self-contained economies on their own that rival many nations. Total membership numbers are closely guarded secrets and hard to come by, plus there is huge overlap from one to another. But estimates of the largest, the American Airlines AAdvantage program, run from 60 million to 100 million members, collecting and spending trillions of miles worth billions of dollars. It's as if you took everyone in Thailand and put them on a plane to Orlando. 

And I am one of those citizens of the air. Like many, I wouldn't dream of booking a ticket and NOT being scrupulous enough make sure my ID number is correctly recorded. For even as they keep ratcheting up the floor and tweaking the earning criteria, after only roughly 1000 flights from here to Los Angeles I can accrue enough miles to fly to Atlanta for free, as long as I travel on a Tuesday evening and am willing to make a stop in Detroit along the way. 

Building up my account also vaults me into the rarified air of elite members.  Depending on the program, these usually include tiers identified by precious metals (silver, gold, platinum), precious gems (opal, sapphire, diamond) or some other precious hierarchy that gives nod to the need to feel superior (preferred, elite, VIP). Doing so gives me additional perks, which in an airlines' case means things like early boarding, lounge access and special peanuts. 

That said, it's worth noting that as the rewards levels have been upped and more people are flying more often, the peaks have become harder to scale. The net result is that whereas it used to be commonplace to score an upgrade, now only the most grizzled road warriors can expect to get bumped to the front. Or as I realized when I looked for my name on the monitors at the gate on my last flight, I was so far down the list that I would need everyone in business class to get off, and then all the people who replaced them to also cancel, and then maybe, just maybe, I might have a shot at a seat close to the pilots. 

Still, that vision of being part of the 1% has so entranced the buying public that any company that sells anything has created a loyalty program to entice and reward their best customers. From the American Express Membership Rewards Program to MGM Resorts MLife Rewards to Marvel Comics Marvel Insider program, there are a million ways to collect points or visits or miles or visits and trade them in for free stuff, discounts or enhanced experiences. Collect enough, and you can ascend from a mere consumer to preferred status, allowing you to claim a free trip (Amex) to a discounted stay (MLife) to an Ironman pin (Marvel). Only you can decide if it's worth listening to a Black Panther Podcast to claim the points. 

Which brings me back to my Speedy Card. I registered for it not because I wanted a free bratwurst from those silver grilling rollers (1350 points) nor a bag of Speedy Gummi Worms (1250 points) but because, well, I don't know. I guess because it filled some deep internal need. After all, as one reviewer noted, these days all customers are children at heart and feel we should be rewarded for our participation. And so almost more important than a 20% off coupon is being flagged as Elite (Run Everything Labs) or Circle5 (Neiman Marcus) or Addict (AHAVA cosmetics). 

So when you see me at the pumps, recognize me for what I am. Not just another schmo filling his tank with 10 gallons of Plus. No, my 4502 points qualify me as a Speedy Rewards Perk member. Show some respect.

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Marc Wollin of Bedford has points in places he will never use. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at http://www.glancingaskance.blogspot.com/, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Reduce, Reuse, Rewear

I know you've done it: you start the day in shorts and short sleeves, but as the day goes on you get chilly, so change into warmer stuff and toss the first outfit onto the chair in your bedroom to wear tomorrow. Or you have to go to a meeting, so take off your tee shirt and jeans toss them in the same place. Or you change into a fresh shirt and slacks to meet some friends for dinner, and figure you'll just wear the same clothes for the following night's outing, so add them to the stack. That pile? It has a name: it's called a "chairobe." 

According to Urban Dictionary, the term has multiple meanings. Yes, it includes all the lightly worn cast-offs as described by the situations above. But it also encompasses things you've worn for the day but are still relatively unstained and unmussed, say a sweater or the top layer of a multi-layer outfit. And then there's those various items you cycle through while looking to find the right outfit for your upcoming do, but forgo rehanging in the closet. Regardless of the source, research says that 60% of millennials have just such a pile in their apartments. Anecdotally, I would say you can broaden the demographic of practitioners to Baby Boomers, Gen Xer's, Next Gen's and Whatever-Other-Gen'er's. 

Regardless of your cohort, in the name of water conservation, labor conservation and plain old wear and tear, you can make a pretty good case for not laundering some of these aforementioned items after every use. Of course, there are some articles that should be dropped in the basket regardless of how short of time they are on your body, including exercise gear, underwear and socks. As to the rest, the web site Popsugar has a guide to "How Many Wears Before You Need to Wash." Assuming you haven't spilled anything on them, it marks tops, dresses and leggings at 1 to 2 times, pants, skirts, and shorts at 3 to 4, and jeans, jackets and blazers at 5 to 6. But even if that shirt is in pretty good shape, that doesn't mean that it doesn't need a little freshening up. And that's where Day2 steps in. 

Available at this point only in the UK, Day2 is an aerosol spray from Unilever that does three things: gets rid of odors, removes creases, and softens fabric. It's sort of a combination wrinkle-release spray crossed with Febreze, but made specifically for clothes. It comes in three strengths (based on the fabrics, not how bad your clothes smell) including Original, Denim and Delicate. The instructions say for you to you spray a garment lightly on both sides, smooth out the wrinkles with your hands, hang it up and leave it for 15 minutes, and your duds are ready for another go. Each bottle has enough stuff for about 25 uses, which reportedly saves 16 gallons of water. 

Like many modern conveniences that make life easier or are good for the environment, it's doesn't necessarily make economic sense. While it saves water it doesn't save money: at about $10 a bottle, you could buy an equivalent amount of regular detergent to do 40 or 50 loads. But it's not completely apples to apples: less washing means your clothes should also last longer and not fade as quickly, prolonging their life. So you can make a case that it might be a "better living through chemistry" moment. 

For those really adverse to doing the wash, you might want to consider a triple team on your clothes. If all you have are mussed up duds that need a smoothing, there's Downy Wrinkle Remover. If you drip some coffee or sauce on your pants, a Tide To Go stain pen might erase the damage. And Day2 promises to get you through another 24 to 48 hours without making a trip to machine. After that? Well, as with almost everything else, there's an app for that. Flycleaners, Cleanly and Rise are all sort of Uber-for-Laundry services where you can plug the particulars into your phone, and someone will come to pick up your dirties, do your cleaning and deliver those jeans back to you. iLaundry, if you will. 

Or you could just go through life naked. Your choice.

-END-

Marc Wollin of Bedford generally screws up the laundry without specific instructions from his wife. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at http://www.glancingaskance.blogspot.com/, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Scan I Am

Since I was going to be in the neighborhood, my wife gave me a small list of items to pick up at the grocery store. I dutifully traipsed up and down the aisles, finding the stuff she requested, then headed to the front to settle up. There were several manned checkout lanes in operation, but all had patrons with carts filled to overflowing. On the other hand I was sporting a little red basket with just a few items, so headed over to the do-it-yourself checkout scanners off to the side. 

Those devices have become ubiquitous over the last bunch of years to the benefit of all. From the standpoint of the consumer, when it comes to routine tasks we have demonstrated our preference for quick and efficient process over human interaction time and again. Whether ordering toothpaste online, getting cash from an ATM or depositing a check, why talk to anyone when all you need to do is press a few buttons, swipe a card or take a picture? 

As far as the merchants are concerned, it's a win-win. We are doing their work for them, saving them labor costs, and getting us in and out more quickly. Sure, they can hire people to greet us by name and ring us out. But that's an expensive "hello." It makes more sense to have those folks available to solve problems or offer personalized advice, as opposed to sliding a jar of peanut butter across a scanner, especially if we are willing to do it ourselves. 

And let's face it: in most cases it's a pretty straightforward process. Grab the item, rotate it so the bar code is facing the correct direction, and slide it past the laser. It registers the total on the screen and you're on to the next. When finished, punch the "pay" button and settle up. And off you go, the sooner to do battle in the parking lot and be on your way home. 

That's when it all works the way it's supposed to. But like any system, when put into play in the real world, there are quirks. Sometimes the reader doesn't read, and you have to keep waving the item around until it does. Sometimes it doesn't register being added to the bag on the other side, and you have to pick it up and put it down a second time. But by and large, when you consider all that is happening, the thousands of products to be recalled and priced, and the ease with which an unskilled consumer can manage a complex device, it's actually pretty remarkable. 

Unless you have produce. If all we ever bought were "apples," it wouldn't be an issue. But there are Granny Smiths and Golden Delicious, McIntosh and Cortland, Gala and Braeburn, and each has a different ID number and associated price. A skilled checker knows them as 7834 and 3343, 2324 and 2122, 1243 and 9473. But we civilians have to find those codes, paging through pages of pictures, dredging up distant memories of second grade math problems. 

And so it was with the cucumber in my basket. Was it Lebanese or Telegraph, Armenian or Muncher? Yes, they are all green, but one costs 82 cents, another twice that. I put mine on the scale, then scrolled the screen looking for the correct match. But all the cukes looked the same. I punched in what I thought was the right code, only to be told it was thee bucks. Couldn't be right. The attendant on duty had seen this play before. She quickly came over, swiped her admin code and cleared out my mistake. Casting a practiced eye over my item, she keyed in the correct code to the tune of 69 cents. She smiled and stepped away, leaving me to try again with a chili pepper. But once more, I was a babe in the produce woods: Serrano or Shishito? All looked pretty much the same on the little icons. Whatever I keyed in cost 2 bucks, more than it should. Again the professional stepped in, waved me away, and corrected my error to be 79 cents. 

Next time, to borrow a Seussian construct, if my basket has nothing but cans and crackers, scan I am. But unless that cilantro has a tag on it with name and serial number, I'm going to the manned lanes. Because it all looks like parsley to me.

-END-

Marc Wollin of Bedford gets confused in the produce aisle. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online , as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, September 08, 2018

Working the System

We were looking to go away, and I was pricing the airfare for the two of us. I punched around a bit looking at different routings and timings, and found something that made sense for about $570. I jotted down the details and moved onto something else, making a mental note to discuss it over dinner. In talking it over we agreed it made sense and that we should go ahead with the purchase. When I finally got back to my computer the next day and had a few minutes to follow up, I entered our preferences once again. Same routing, same timing, same airline, same class of service. No difference, except now the ticket cost $1070. 

They call that "dynamic pricing." It's when you are charged for an item or service based on demand, timing and other factors. And indeed one of the best examples is airline seats, where virtually every person on a given flight is paying a different amount. But now it seems as if every single item you buy is priced within a window which runs from 20% below the cost of the raw materials, up to a markup of 300% over that baseline. It's left to you to bring down the gavel on the number that makes the most sense for your wallet. 

It used to be just antiques and artwork got this treatment. Sure, there might be variations by geography, but pricing was fairly standardized, set by the maker or supplier (the famous "MSRP" or manufacturer's suggested retail price), and then tweaked by the seller as they wished. So a coat was more or less the same everywhere: maybe $100 at Macy's, $104 at Bloomingdale's and $98 at Sears. Sure, a sale at any individual outlet might affect the final tally, but it usually wasn't worth the gas it would take to drive around try to save the five bucks.   

But then Amazon and Google made it possible to compare prices with click of a mouse. And if retailing's head wasn't already spinning, now it simply blew up. There was no way to compete on price when your competition was everyone everywhere in every possible configuration. So merchants adapted to fight fire with fire. Now even the same outlet has different prices depending on whether you get in in the store, purchase it online, or buy it online and have it sent to the store for pickup. 

They also use that same adaptability to tilt the equation in their favor when they can. Take that airline seat. Perhaps in the day between my initial inquiry and the time I went back to purchase the ticket planeloads of people decided they had to fly the same route and timing. And so the price of the available seats, as a simple matter of supply and demand, jumped up.  Possible? Sure. Likely? Not so much. 

More likely is that they noted my interest (with the ubiquitous computer "cookie") and adjusted on the fly. I didn't buy the first time, but came back and looked at the same thing a second. Hence, I must be seriously interested, so why not jack up the price?  Almost doubling the bottom line is an extreme example, but you see the same routine in smaller amounts when looking at pants, toothpaste and computers. And often, just because it's the path of least resistance, you click "buy." 

But not this time. On a hunch, I went into my browsing history and deleted my most recent efforts, making sure it covered the time when I did my initial inquiry. Then I went back and started again. Sure, I had to log in as if I was a new customer, but that was the point. And sure enough, up popped the original price I was offered, as if I was there for the first time. Had those same planeloads of people suddenly decided they didn't need to fly on the day I was going and cancel their reservations? Again, possible. Again, not likely. 

Like "Cheers," sometimes it's nice to have a place that knows your name. But when that means they charge you more, maybe it's better to pull the ballcap down low over your eyes and pretend to be a newcomer. After all, on the internet no one knows if you're a dog. Or a frequent flyer.

-END-

Marc Wollin of Bedford like to beat the system at least sometimes. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at http://www.glancingaskance.blogspot.com/, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, September 01, 2018

The Mouth of Luxury

Almost anything basic can be made into a luxury item. Doesn't matter if it's a shirt or an iPhone case, a hat or a backpack, a wallet or a computer. All it takes is some interesting trim, an exotic ingredient or two, maybe a non-utilitarian feature, and before you know it the price has doubled and you can't take it out in the rain. 

As to whether it's worth the extra coin or not, well, that's a very individual determination. After all, at the most basic level, there is no difference in a pen from Bic or one from Mont Blanc. Both have ink. Both can sign a check. Both clip to your pocket. But while the latter starts at around $400 and models go well beyond a grand, you can get a pack of 12 of the former for under ten bucks. Yet there are some that would rather be caught with kiddie porn than use a Clic to sign the bill at the Four Seasons. 

You would think that there are some things that are immune to this distinction. Ping pong paddles? You can get them made with reclaimed walnut and leather handles from Tiffany for $650. Ice? Gl├Ące sells 50 round or square luxury "cubes" for $325 a set. Door stop? Take a Savoy vase, fill it with concrete, then smash the vase and you have a stop that will set you back $3500. What's next? Luxury dental floss? 

Actually, yes. 

That's the pitch of Cocofloss. Even though recent studies have questioned the benefits of flossing, dentist Christle Cu was a firm believer in the practice. But her patients weren't doing it, not even her own sister Catherine. Christle started to wonder how she could turn the tide. She knew that when patients came in to have their teeth cleaned, many seemed to love the fact that she had 20 different flavors of polish from which to choose. "It's a luxury to have choices," she noted. And so she wondered: could she extend that luxury to those little pieces of string? 

She started experimenting with different materials, even picking up seaweed from the beach and running it over her teeth. With her sister's help, they called factories and manufacturers around the world before settling on a material. While most of the brands you find in a drug store use nylon or Teflon fibers, they decided to go with a blue polyester string made up on 500 strands impregnated with microcrystalline wax, essential oils and aromas. It's also coated with coconut oil, a nod to wellness enthusiasts and based on a trendy (but unproven) technique for cleaning your choppers by swishing the stuff around in your mouth. All together they say the fibers give it texture, the coconut oil offers some lubrication and the turquoise color helps you see the crud you scrape out of your mouth. You might call that disgusting: Chrystle calls it "immediate feedback." 

As to flavors, they have that too. There's the mint that others sport, as well as strawberry, coconut, orange and watermelon. And the packaging isn't a white box that looks like it belongs in a first aid kit, but rather sleek and modern plastic in splashy tropical colors like tangerine orange, neon green, and bright pink. In all, it's trying to take that Bic and make it, if not a Mont Blanc, then at least a Cross. Of course, buying what they describe as a "beach towel for your teeth" will cost you: as opposed to about two bucks for the regular stuff, a package of bright blue coconut flavored Cocofloss will set you back about 4 times that. 

I queried a dentist I know as to the effectiveness of it, strictly from a clinical standpoint. I know she's a proponent of flossing as part of good dental hygiene. But as to the claims of efficacy of the product? "Coconut oil is the latest rage that is a bunch of snake oil. Zero evidence that it does any good. Save your money." But I pushed her: it's a beach towel for your teeth! It comes in watermelon! It has 500 fibers! Gwyneth Paltrow's Goop endorsed it! Her response was less clinical and more, how shall I put it, emotional: "Make stuff up and get rich. Why didn't I think of this?????" 

Hermes bookmark for $370, anyone?

-END-

Marc Wollin of Bedford usually buys the basic model of anything. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at http://www.glancingaskance.blogspot.com/, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.