Category Archives: Consumer Issues

Baseball in the Pandemic– Fix It!

Having tried to watch my team, the World Champion Washington Nationals, in their opening “season” games against the New York Yankees, I am experiencing serious withdrawal symptoms. It’s not just that it’s early in the season – this year there is no “early” because the entire regular season is only 60 games long. The problem for me is that there are no fans. Piped in sound or, as I saw in a West Coast game the other day, human cutouts in the stands behind home plate, are no substitute for the real thing.

I expressed that sentiment during the season opener, and my wife came up immediately with an inspired idea: why not let the active military (maybe all veterans), first responders, and healthcare workers attend the games at no charge? Even a few hundred or more fans would add a lot of energy to these vacant ballpark situations while providing a reward to people who without doubt deserve one. MLB ballparks are plenty spacious to permit this concept with plenty of social distancing and mandatory masking. There would, of course, be some limited costs involved but surely MLB can afford them. There may be some logistics challenges but, viewed from a distance, they don’t seem insurmountable.

I tweeted the idea to the Washington Nationals but, of course, received no response. I can’t think of a sound reason not to do this. With a committed effort, a workable process could be developed in under a week and initiated soon enough to add some much needed “reality” to the nation’s pastime.

Did I mention that my team, the Washington Nationals, won the World Series last year?

Pandemic Influences on Higher Education Choices

My good friend and professional colleague, Kevin Mitchell, founded the Business Travel Coalition (http://www.businesstravelcoalition.com/) many years ago and publishes a subscription based daily newsletter of important reporting on the entire travel business. The newsletter, now called tVillage Intelligencer, is seen by thousands around the world.

Kevin is prolific writer and thinker and has published a thoughtful and, as always, well-crafted essay addressing the implications of the pandemic on the decisions being faced by many families and young people whether to go to college or pursue other options. I responded to the piece and, with Kevin’s permission, am republishing the exchange here (without the graphics; his original essay can be seen at  https://publicate.it/p/KqXmdg152169):

A Pandemic Consequence: The Questioning of Higher Education

No idle Memorial Day weekend exercise for some

This weekend as Americans think about and honor the more than one million patriots who gave their precious lives for the promise of America, there is even more on the minds of parents. The economic fallout of the COVID-19 (C19) pandemic is causing parents of children already in college, about to enter college or considering applying to think long and hard if such an expensive commitment is the best and only path for their children.Indeed, there is a counter-push against the American must-go-to-college mantra that is increasing in strength. I believe that like previous pandemics, C19 will accelerate many existing or latent economic and societal trends. The crisis is likely, for example, to push a lot of parents and their children to rethink the cost/benefit of a traditional college education compared with alternative paths.

Sadly, a lot of kids today go to college because all their friends do without considering whether that’s what they really want to do and if it is worth 4 years of their lives and a lot of expense, including lost wages, versus other options. For sure, some have a dream of becoming an architect, physicist, astronaut or the next Olympic track star. However, that’s different in that those young adults have strong personal life-purposes and visions. Still, for others, they want to explore new intellectual, social and cultural experiences that are important and valuable to them to better understand.

Higher education has been justifiably pedestalled as a highly valued tradition in Western and non-Western cultures for its numerous and far reaching societal benefits. My grandmother and grandfather, for example, immigrated from Ireland to America in the early 20th century and originally took jobs in Boston as a maid and policeman respectively. They were determined to put my mother and her sister through college to improve their lives. My mother graduated from Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia in 1940 when very few women of her parents’ means were able to attend college. Both went onto long careers in education touching many thousands of lives and living the American Dream. So, I am all-in for this important tradition of higher education and its linkage to upward social mobility.

Today, however, especially against the backdrop of a C19 economic crisis, where close to 40 million Americans have so far lost jobs in a highly unsure future-looking economy, many are beginning to challenge the assumption that college is the only path on which to responsibly put their children to achieve the American Dream and a productive, fulfilling life.

It’s not just the high cost. Also at issue is the perceived uneven quality of the education itself, the totality of today’s campus experience and the enabling public policy. Many point to the financing model of higher education as a root cause of the $1.6 trillion college tuition debt-bubble that is more likely to burst during this C19 economic malaise as parents making loan payments are increasingly under financial duress. And let’s not forget the superrich buying their kids’ entry to prestigious universities; not a good look for American society or higher education! In combination, these developments reinforce some parents’ weariness and instincts that it’s time for a revalidation of assumptions. This should worry U.S. institutions of higher learning that have already seen student enrollments decline every year since 2011.

It’s fair to ask if recent graduates are better prepared to work hard, take risks and achieve success than if they had chosen to take a different path, or waited for a while until they discovered their keen interests or passions to make the best possible decisions for themselves.

Perhaps with some irony, a pandemic is once again poised to insert itself in the trajectory of higher education – which has been forever short on innovation and long on cost increases. University education was democratized for the masses as an eventual consequence of the Bubonic Plague in the 14th century wherein prior to that time those of us with European roots had ancestors some 75% of whom were serfs largely confined to their lords’ fields and heavy-handed restrictions. However, while there is something very important about the pursuit of university study that should be understood, valued and safeguarded, there is reason for healthy skepticism as well.

I graduated from St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia in 1980 with a 4-year tuition debt of a mere $10K, which I easily paid off in 3 years. Was it worth it for me? Yes, because I learned that jobs in a big company without a degree were virtually non-existent. In my case, a bachelor’s degree in international relations apparently provided an employer with an indication of some competence and/or other positive attributes. I was offered a job by CIGNA Corp.

Beyond getting my foot in the door at CIGNA, did I secure new skills and knowledge from investing four years of my life and working full-time, year-round? Yes. Was it an even-trade for the benefit? Leaving aside that it represented the key to the CIGNA door, my answer is a resounding no. Very little of what I learned in class helped me in my career and I did not benefit from the interactions of living on campus with fellow students because I lived at home.

The university model should be fundamentally reformed. However, it should also be cherished and safeguarded while culturally celebrating the upward-mobility successes available to those in America who want to strike out with personal visions and work hard and achieve their goals without four-year college degrees. Options include self-education, job training, trade schools and technical certifications, as an example, for aircraft mechanics.

The classic American expression “self-made man” was coined in 1832 by U.S. Senator Henry Clay to acknowledge the inner promise and strength of individuals who work hard and succeed irrespective of the circumstances in which they find themselves. There are enough examples in America to fill a university library.

Born poor in Kentucky, and with a total of one year of school, self-educated Abraham Lincoln led our country through its most profound crisis ever during the American Civil War abolishing slavery and fundamentally modernizing the American economy. Lincoln pursued a path that diverged from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, Penn, Haverford, Fordham and other institutions accepting students at that time.

Lincoln, instead, chose a version of distance-learning enabled by borrowed books to become a self-taught lawyer at age 25, state legislator, Member of Congress and President of the United States. With some irony, in 1862 Lincoln signed into law the Morrill Land-Grant Act enabling the creation of soon-to-become prestigious universities such as Cornell, MIT, Penn State, Rutgers, Ohio State, Texas A&M, West Virginia and the University of California.

Not such a bad path, role model or agent of change! 

Perhaps it would be counter-intuitive, but fruitful, for colleges and universities to celebrate and embrace alternative paths to four-year degrees and lifelong learning and reinvent themselves by taking a leadership role in a comprehensive national initiative to prepare future generations of Americans to be productive, highly successful citizens. Lincoln, the epitome of the self-made man, was able to appreciate accomplishment without the benefit of a college degree and, at the same time, to champion the strategic importance to our nation of expanding institutions of higher learning.As pandemics are wont to do, I am sure many Americans this Memorial Day weekend are using the reflective time to think over many long-held assumptions about important components of their lives from college, to work-life balances, to placing their parents in nursing homes.

My response:

I read with great interest your essay on the questioning of higher education as a partial result of the economic disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic. I have been mulling this subject for a long time, inspired by some much earlier published pieces in which (1) a successful entrepreneur (one of your “self-made men”) argued that college was useless, that his son would have to make his way as an innovator, just like dad, or fail, without wasting time in college; (2) arguments were presented that the cost-benefit analysis, comparing future earning differentials for college graduates v. non-college people showed conclusively that, as you have suggested, it’s “not worth it.”

Having been blessed with a scholarship-financed liberal arts education at an Ivy League college, also with associated debt to repay, I must dissent.

You are no doubt correct that the economic destruction wrought by the pandemic will force many to rethink their ability to pay for a college education. This is but one of the many tragedies to emerge from the pandemic. But that, I suggest, is a separate issue from whether a college education is so valuable that, if the opportunity exists, it should almost always be chosen. The value is properly determined not simply by traditional “cost benefit” analysis but by a broader range of intangible considerations.

For example, an on-campus college education presents the opportunity for young people to engage with a range of intellectual and other mind-expanding stimuli in an atmosphere that, if properly run, expands understanding of how the world works. It forces students to confront different points of view and to think more deeply about hard questions about which they previously just assumed the answers. They have the opportunity to confront and understand complexity. Ultimately, they learn to think, often about subjects they had no original interest in and would never have been touched by in the absence of the “cloistered” college experience.

Viewed this way, college is not just a trade school, a place where you learn how to do something. It’s a place where you come to understand what you can and should be doing and then you move on to more advanced studies or enter the world and take up the rest through direct experience.

I do not suggest, however, that college is right or necessary for everyone. But it is right for most young people who life paths are still being sorted at the time college is an option .It is not just the ticket to superior employment – it is the essential prerequisite to the fully examined life.

I believe we are seeing now in our society the consequences of having a large population of adults who did not have this experience. The polls refer to them as the “non-college educated white people.” They tend to support Donald Trump, to revere destructive rhetoric, support anti-immigrant and anti-diversity policies, to “hate” the “other,” defined as people not like them. Their thought processes embrace ideas like “fake news” and are unable to distinguish truth from ideology. They don’t think deeply about anything because they’ve never been required to do so. They see themselves as victims and engage in much magical thinking, including attraction to conspiracy theories.

Obviously, not all non-college educated people are like that but I believe the shockingly large segment of the American population that the above does describe is in significant part a function of the lack of higher education and the exposure to “other” ideas and “other” people that such education most often provides.

It would be ideal, of course, if the United States offered both paths, so that those people who only want to learn a trade and pursue the resulting life can do so. In the past the country did have trade schools but the shifting of manufacturing to foreign sources caused job opportunities in many trades to dry up, leading to the closure of many related educational opportunities. The demand now is for computer science and related skills and while there are schools devoted largely to teaching those things, the emerging students will likely lead more rewarding lives, all aspects considered, if they also have some learning experiences in literature, history and the like.

You and I are probably not as far apart as might appear with respect to the above. Where we more seriously diverge, I suspect, is regarding the notion of the “self-made man,” for which you cite Abraham Lincoln as a stellar example of what can happen to individuals with the “inner promise and strength … who work hard and succeed irrespective of the circumstances in which they find themselves.” Lincoln certainly stands out in the pantheon of such people, but I suggest that the chances today of more “Lincolns,” or even more Steve Jobs emerging and doing great works, as opposed to simply making themselves rich with some new technology they imagined, is slimmer than ever.

That is not just a consequence of the greater complexity of today’s knowledge-demands; the system has been rigged to suppress many of the potential innovators. I wrote about this in my blog post entitled, The Larger Meaning of “Hidden Figures” https://bit.ly/2TGx172, the gist of which was expressed thus,

 As bad as slavery, Jim Crow and segregation were for the direct victims, and most of us cannot comprehend how it was to be the constant target of such practices every  day of our lives with no hope of change, the larger lesson from this movie is, I believe, the staggering cost to everyone, in the United States and everywhere, of the lost  contributions and achievements of which these practices deprived us.  And still do.

In the millions of people directly suppressed by these practices, it is a certainty that there were multitudes of people who would, in other circumstances, have become  great scientists, inventors, artists, musicians, athletes, caregivers, writers, teachers and on and on. All of us have lost forever the benefits of the achievements of those  people who never had a chance to develop into their individual potentials as human beings. The frightened people of no vision who perpetuated these practices from    America’s earliest days even to today in some places have deprived the country and the world of an immeasurable gift.

One of the most surprising aspects of that blog post, written in in early 2017, is that visitors to the blog to this day seek it out more than anything else I have written. From where I sit, there may still be some chances for so-called “self-made men” to emerge but the odds are heavily against them. And, I must say, that the term “self-made,” in my opinion, grossly understates the contribution that others made to all such people, including Abraham Lincoln properly understood.

In conclusion, having staked that position, I now declare that I agree strongly with you regarding the need for reform in our education system. Those reforms should certainly include opportunities for future “tradesmen” to learn and proceed with an honorable path through life. They should, I think, also provide for a viable economic path to and through higher education so that everyone who wants to study anything serious should be able to do so without assuming overwhelming debt that take decades to repay and have all manner of deleterious impacts on individuals, families and society at large. I readily confess I don’t know how to get to that idyllic state, but the price we pay as a society of failing at this may well be our undoing, not just as a nation-state but as a civilization.

Some Lessons Learned from the Pandemic

In listening to another press briefing by New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo, I have noticed that he has consistently emphasized that much of what is being experienced, and governments’ responses, has never been faced in modern times. His related point is that if we want to avoid repeating the results of the past few months, we must learn from these experiences and change the way we do things going forward. We should not, he argues, just seek to restore everything from the past but build a new and better future based on the lessons learned during the pandemic. The possibilities are probably limitless but a few of them leap out at me.

Reliance on Foreign Supply

One big one is that as a society, we have come to rely on foreign sources, often but not solely from China, for many critical supplies, including medical supplies that are essential to addressing pandemic-driven illness. Cuomo correctly notes that the United States was ill-prepared to face an emergency of this nature, even though health experts have been predicting for years that a serious pandemic was virtually certain to occur.

How did we come to this situation? At the root of it, I suggest, is the “consumer mentality” of our evolved culture. Recognizing how broadly I am generalizing, it seems true that Americans generally lust for more and more “stuff” and the cheaper the price, the better. To accommodate this demand, our “free market” system of commerce turns to markets where labor and other factors permit the mass production of almost everything we lust for at prices below what they could be produced for domestically, remarkably even after the cost of transportation is accounted for. If you examine the origin labels on most of what you buy, you will see that most of it comes from China, South Korea, Vietnam and other countries in the Far East that are as far from here as you can physically get (except possibly for Australia).

Faced with these challenges from “foreign competition,” many American companies have closed their U.S. facilities and “shipped production overseas.” These decisions are supported, and sometimes even promoted, by the U.S. tax code, with the result that domestic jobs in hundreds of industries have been decimated and entire communities and even whole cities have been laid to waste. Youngstown, Ohio is one I am familiar with but there are many others all over the country.

These outcomes have not changed the demand for ever cheaper goods and have permitted companies like Amazon to dominate the supply chain for an astounding array of goods and services. If we are to believe the “reviews” on Amazon and elsewhere, much of what is produced in China and delivered in the U.S. is of low quality, but it’s “cheap” and it sells. What doesn’t sell is down-streamed through a largely invisible chain of distribution and re-distribution that sees a lot of this “stuff” for sale in so-called “dollar stores” and even second-hand shops.

If the only products we were considering were consumer electronics and such, the American lust for more and cheaper stuff would be somewhat less concerning, unless you ask someone who lives in a community devastated by the “foreign competition” that sucked local jobs dry and left the workers with nothing productive or remunerative to do.

Now comes the pandemic and we discover to our deep sorrow that we don’t have enough medical supplies to provide care of the swelling numbers of patients, many more of whom are going to die without it. Getting more supplies is now a global issue, as competition for scarce supplies erupts among countries and, we now learn, even between the states and our own federal government. The result is higher prices for everyone and still there is often a shortage requiring ordinary citizens to, for example, sew masks to try to protect healthcare workers on the front lines of patient care. If you’ve tried to buy your own masks from a foreign supplier, you may have learned, as I did, that much of the foreign supply is poorly made and often useless. And, of course, mask prices are now through the roof because government health policies are rigorously promoting/requiring mask use.

Another issue is that the federal government has allowed more than 100 coronavirus tests into the marketplace without full review. Many of these tests are sub-standard or worse. https://wapo.st/3c7V4TC

The lesson is clear, although the solutions are complicated and will, as with all major changes, take time. The United States should never again allow itself to be dependent on any foreign country for critical medical supplies. There will, of course, be a price to be paid for achieving this. Some things likely will cost more to produce here than in the “labor mills” of China. Americans will not willingly submit to the mass-production practices, and attendant low wages and poor working conditions, that dominate Chinese and other Far East manufacturing processes. So be it. Related to this is the question of foreign ownership of American companies, a readily available backdoor to foreign control of American business. We have to learn and change or face these problems all over again.

Tying Access to Health Insurance to Employment

Most Americans of working age buy health insurance provided/purchased through their employer. Putting aside ongoing issues of price/quality and coverage of options, not to mention extraordinary complexity of what is and is not covered, the real problem with this system is that when you lose your job, you lose your insurance as well. In normal circumstances, you have the option of paying for interim coverage through the COBRA program but there is no employer contribution, so the premiums are extremely high. There is also a time limit. COBRA can be a life-saver but it is economically challenging to put it mildly and highly disruptive.

The root problem is the connection between employment and insurance. There is no reason I know that this connection is immutable. Other systems exist in developed countries and seem to produce adequate or even superior protection for insureds. I am not an expert in all this, but it seems clear from the public dialogue about this that many people are invested in the current system, including the insurance companies. Many people are also opposed to greater direct government involvement on the grounds that it is “socialism.” The result is that the public discussion has partisan and irrational components that prevent a rational consideration of alternatives.

Of course, there is the issue of Obamacare that was intended to, among other things, give people the option of obtaining healthcare independent of an employer. In the gig economy that’s vital because so many people are independent contractors. When everyone’s health is tied together, as it is in a pandemic, we should be very concerned about people without health insurance and sick leave, but the Trump administration is working very hard to destroy Obamacare without proposing a replacement. Trump has, of course, denied that he is trying to end Obamacare and in particular has denied that he wants to eliminate insurance coverage of pre-existing conditions. Trump is lying about that. The Department of Justice is actively pressing litigation that would do precisely what Trump says he is not trying to do.

It is, however, clear that viable alternatives to the present system, whether it is Obamacare or something else, do exist and should be evaluated in a calmer, more rational way. I don’t know how to get there, but our society as a whole is paying a dear price for its failure to address this issue. The pandemic that has, as of this writing, led to nearly 40 million unemployed persons, has pushed evaluation of this issue to the top of the list of “must do” tasks as the United States tries to figure out what its future will be.

 

 

 

 

Branding Mysteries at Amazon

In a brief break from politics, I came across this gem a while back:

After reading “About the product,” My first reaction was “great, an increase of 4X in the power of my dishwasher detergent. That’s an impressive 67% increase in strength.” Then, I read the second sentence, “The product itself remains the same.”

What? The 10X product is “the same” as the previous 6X product – and you may receive either one, no matter what you ordered?? And it’s actually “4X concentrated????” But, but, I thought it was at least 6X and might be 10X but now it’s only 4X? Is the 4X the same product as the 6X and the 10X???????

What is going on here? Is this Artificial Intelligence at work in Amazon? At Cascade?

Does no one proof read this stuff before it’s put on the website? Is the description really true and there is no difference between 4X, 6X and 10X? On what planet is this mathematics in use? Am I the only one who reads “About the product” on Amazon?

Since some time had passed since my discovery, I returned to Amazon.com to search again for Cascade ActionPacs Dishwasher Detergent and discovered that the “Xs” have been removed from all the “About the product” descriptions. The site seems to be pushing Cascade Complete, Cascade Platinum and Cascade Pure Essentials. Oh, and Platinum Plus which shows “16X” on the package, though not in the “About this product.” 16X. Imagine that. In case you’re wondering, that is 1X greater than the 15X shown on some packages of just plain Cascade Platinum.

You should also be aware that Cascade Complete has earned the Good Housekeeping Seal, according to “About the product.”

And you’ll no doubt want to know that Cascade Platinum is “Tougher on Burnt-On Messes.” Tougher than what is not indicated, but I’m sure it’s tougher than, say, loose and crumbly messes. AND, it’s “Tougher than 24-hour stuck-on messes,” which, I assume (never assume) is even worse than “Burnt-on Messes.”

Two final observations from the Amazon website (I am not making this up):

“Safety Warning

IRRITANT. HARMFUL IF SWALLOWED OR PUT IN MOUTH. MAY IRRITATE EYES OR SKIN. KEEP OUT OF REACH OF CHILDREN. DO NOT GET IN EYES. DO NOT GET ON SKIN OR CLOTHING. KEEP OUT OF REACH OF CHILDREN. FIRST AID TREATMENT: Contains sodium carbonate, nonionic surfactants, sodium silicate and enzymes. If swallowed, give a glassful of water and call a Poison Control Center or doctor immediately. Do not induce vomiting. If in eyes, rinse with water for 15 minutes. If on skin, rinse well with water.

Legal Disclaimer

Statements regarding dietary supplements have not been evaluated by the FDA and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease or health condition.”

One other “final” observation (if Amazon/Cascade can say 6X and 10X are the same thing, I can fudge on “final”: I looked at the always fascinating “Customer questions and answers” for Cascade Platinum 15X. I have edited these items to protect the identity of people who, for whatever reason, identified themselves. This is a tiny sample of the 50 questions/answers posted for this one product. These items speak for themselves so loudly that I will just leave them here for your edification, though in a few cases, I have been compelled to comment.

Do you have to use salt with this product?

“No pepper is required either! It comes pre-seasoned!”
….

“No “
….

“I have really hard water so I have to have salt in my water softener or else I still have hard water spots on my dishes with these pods. So, I think that would depend on how hard your water is.”

“Never have”

How do you decide which strength of pod to get? Eg 15x vs 12x vs 10x. Why would you not just get the most powerful one?

“I agree. Just get the most powerful one.”
….

“I have tried them all and 15x which is platinum is the best.”

I know the 16x power works great with the hard water here in Texas, would the 15x power be just as effective?

“We have hard water in AZ as well. I have never used the 16X but the 15X is the best that I have purchased. Beats Finish pods by a long shot.”

Can someone will this work with a automatic dishwasher? Thank you

“Works great! And smells good too!”
….

“ABSOLUTELY! I only use in in my dishwasher. And it does a fine job.”
….

“That is what the product is made for”

“That is exactly what it is made for.”

Can It Be Used In Washing Machine?

“Why would anyone want to use dish wash in a cloths washing machine?”

How many pods in the 2 boxes option?

“Seriously?!?”

….

“Same count as one box”

Do you peel off the outside clear layer on the pod?

“It’s was good”  [Best of 6 answers to this question]

Are the pods individually wrapped? Or, can you take the pod directly from the box it comes in and place in dishwasher?

[There were 8 answers to this question. I love how people like to help each other. But, seriously, some people should not be allowed near machinery]

Do the bucket come with it and wut size. I dont need the pods just the bucket

Best of 4 answers:

“The bucket does come with but it is a small bucket. like 7 in height X 6 in width if I had to guess”

[It’s hard to please everyone. The very next question was from someone who didn’t want the bucket: “Is there a product refill with less packaging? I would adore a 62-pod refill pack for my current “tub” with less packaging.” If only those two could get together. A match made in … Amazon]

How does this taste, compared to Tide pod orange & blue flavor?

“G F Y”

Amazon & Pop-Secret Redux

You may recall that I recently wrote about Amazon’s delivery of a roll of industrial “contact paper” in lieu of the 6-pack of Pop-Secret Popcorn that I had ordered. Amazon had informed me, in the way that Amazon does, that I could not return the roll of paper but that it would re-send the popcorn I had originally ordered.

Well … the box came, it seemed a bit heavy, but, again, I was prepared to accept that popcorn weighed more than I expected. And, again, I opened the outer box and, again, nestled inside was the Pop-Secret-branded box containing … wait for it … another roll of industrial contact paper identical to the previous one. To quote Dave Barry, I am not making this up. I promise.

Here is the replacement popcorn:

It turns out that Amazon’s website is not programmed to deal with a repeat failure of this nature. Trying to communicate locked me into an endless loop. The site “believed” I was trying to return the popcorn that it had recorded as being delivered and rejected the return of a food product. So even though the Online Returns Center said you could return a “wrong item,” in fact you can’t in these circumstances. The computer thinks you received replacement popcorn and that, as the saying goes, is the end of that.

Well, not quite. I contacted the always reliable American Express on whose card the popcorn had been charged. An astonished but cooperative agent credited the popcorn charge back to my account. Eventually, I assume Amazon’s computers will “discover” that they haven’t been paid for the popcorn and inquire of me about it. Or not. To paraphrase Melania, I really don’t care.

But, I still want the popcorn. We love popcorn. Rightly or wrongly, we believe it’s a “good for you” snack. We eat a lot of popcorn. Sometimes we eat too much popcorn. Sometimes other do. In fairness to Amazon, it does seem clear now that the problem is not with Amazon but with Pop-Secret itself. So, I sent this message to Pop-Secret using the sense of humor for which I have become unjustly famous:

Houston, we have a problem. You should first read the part of this related to Amazon: https://shiningseausa.com/2018/11/23/black-friday-american-commerce-amazon-best-buy-cvs-whole-foods/   Amazon rejected my attempt to return the item & said it was shipping a new order of popcorn. That replacement order arrived 2 days ago. See attached photos. Clearly, there is a breakdown in the “food chain” somewhere. Since the inner boxes in the shipment bear your logo and are sealed when they arrive, it seems likely that the problem rests with you, not Amazon, though one would hope they’d wonder why the contents of a popcorn order shift around inside the box and weighs a lot more than popcorn. In any case, Amazon has no mechanism for returning or even addressing a 2nd delivery of the wrong product so I had no choice but to dispute the original charge. Maybe that will get their attention. Meanwhile, all we wanted was a reliable supply of your delicious popcorn for the holidays; our local market often runs out. We are frustrated and no longer amused by this strange business. I cannot begin to explain how rolls of industrial tape get into sealed Pop-Secret branded boxes. Perhaps you know. So that’s the story. Bizarre but true. Look forward to hearing from you.

After a brief silence, Pop-Secret responded:

We are sorry to hear about your experience with Pop Secret and we really appreciate you letting us know about it. We will pass this information and your comments along to our Quality Assurance Team, and also keep a record of it. [Somehow, I didn’t find this reassuring.]

Unfortunately, we are unable to explain why you rec’d the item you did through Amazon. [Very not reassuring] I will have the Sales & Marketing staff review and follow up with Amazon as best they can into this matter. [Really not reassuring]

We are sending a few free product coupons your way believing that you will have a great experience with our product next time. [Nothing like belief in the face of hard contrary evidence to make one feel right again] Thanks, again, for letting us know about this. You can expect the coupons to arrive shortly. [Shortly, eh] .… Please let us know if you have any further concerns or comments.

Unable to leave bad enough alone, I did have “further concerns or comments:”

You understand, I trust, that this happened twice, spaced a couple of weeks apart. My first reaction, as evidenced by my blog post, was that this was an Amazon problem, but when it happened a second time, in exactly the same way, I concluded it most likely was a problem that originated at Pop-Secret. I doubt, for example, that Amazon actually packages your 6-pack product into Pop-Secret branded boxes. That activity must occur where your product originates. Amazon then takes your branded boxes and puts them in Amazon boxes for shipment to its customers.

I appreciate the offer of coupons but I would like to know how the investigation ends. I plan to write about this again in my blog and want to be fair, and accurate.

Four days have passed and no reply. Now, we all know from past experience that, rightly or wrongly, I have a problem with being ignored. Sooo, I am recounting this saga here, fairly and accurately, as promised.

What happens next, the human mind may never imagine. Perhaps the promised coupons will arrive and they won’t say “good only on Amazon.com.” Maybe nothing will happen. Meanwhile, find something more useful to do with your time.

Black Friday & American Commerce at Work (herein of Amazon, Best Buy, CVS & Whole Foods)

Black Friday is here and America is ready for a shoppingpalooza to end all paloozas. It seems like a good time to remind everyone, with full expectation of being ignored, about how the American shopping experience can sometimes go wrong.

First, Amazon. The funny (in a perverse way) part. I have written twice about Amazon’s practice of waste in its inappropriate packaging choices. https://bit.ly/2PQ7VTp and https://bit.ly/2DVS4fR That part is not funny. Anyway, I was slightly surprised by the weight of the package that arrived supposedly containing a precious order of Nature’s great food: popcorn. But I had ordered a box of six boxes of six packs each, so it was, I thought, possible that popcorn could weigh that much. The item is depicted here:

Delicious! Since I had foolishly consumed our supply some days before, I was delighted to receive this package.

So, you can imagine my surprise when I opened the outer shipping box, and saw inside a box bearing the brand name of PopSecret wedged tightly into the outer box. Yes! Amazon is doing better! So, I slit open the top of the inner PopSecret-labeled box and saw this:

As best I can tell, this product is: Oracal 631 Matte Vinyl Roll 12 Inches by 150 feet – Black by Oracal

I would have understood if Amazon had shipped the wrong brand of popcorn or maybe even if it had sent another food product altogether. But Vinyl Tape instead of popcorn? Is this stuff arrayed on the shelves together? Does no one check these things before they ship?

We will never know the answer to those compelling questions. But we do know is that Amazon knows a bad move when it sees one and, as I have experienced in past product mix-ups, it advised me to just keep vinyl tape and it would ship the popcorn at no extra charge. Of course, the estimated delivery date is a week from the arrival of the tape, making a slight mockery of the Prime delivery for which I pay an annual fee. And the product listing for the popcorn now shows “Currently Unavailable,” so we could be cruising toward a losing situation. Time will tell. Meanwhile, I have laid in a supply of popcorn from the local market.

Moving on to something more concerning, I recently visited the local Best Buy on Broadway in New York City. Its website showed it had a software package for photo editing that I wanted to buy. And, I wanted to buy it right now! After reviewing the package for compatibility issues. So, I walked the half mile or so to the store, asked the young man on the phone at the information booth in front whether the software was downstairs. He nodded yes and continued his conversation.

To make a long story shorter, I walked around each floor of the store twice. No photo editing software to be seen. I did see one, yes, one other customer who was engrossed in playing with one of the electronic devices. I saw at least six Best Buy employees moving around the store, some of them speaking into walkie-talkies. I thought I would trick one of them into asking if I needed help by spending some time with the most expensive cameras. I showed serious interest, looking through view finders and manipulating the dials. No takers. Bottom line: I walked around the store acting like a confused consumer looking for something specific and not one of the employees asked if they could help me find something. I left.

I don’t know where the management was. Maybe one of the Best Buy people I saw was the management. In any case Best Buy, which is in direct competition with Amazon and many others for mostly commodity-type products, is running a losing operation based on this admittedly small sample size of its performance. Maybe I have it backwards though; the store was empty because everyone but me knows how bad the service is. Time will tell.

Now to get serious for a moment. A good while back, I wrote a post about a service failure related to a product branded by CVS Pharmacies  https://bit.ly/2DTcAgY

That little essay concluded with this:

“One thing is certainly true. I will not be ignored. And, thus, we are here, using the only tool at my disposal to try to shame CVS into responding to my documented complaint about a product sold under its brand. This is not the end of this saga but the beginning. I intend to file complaints in the near future with the Better Business Bureau and such other consumer protection agencies in New York City as I can find. CVS, this could all have been avoided if you had just acted responsibly.”

Not being one to make idle threats, I did what I had said and, finally, the sleeping giant awakened. Recall that I first contacted CVS in June 2018 about the damage caused by its product that had melted against the bathroom wall. My complaints to the Better Business Bureau and the NYC Department of Consumer Affairs apparently got their attention. A CVS message to the BBB took the issue back to Medline Industries that handles such things.

After the usual form apologies and assurances about how seriously they take the quality of their products and “value others input,” Medline, in October,  told me this was the first such complaint and that “the issue is considered to be isolated.” Then,

“It is likely that the issue occurred due to harsh conditions such as high heat and humidity in the storage area. All sanitary napkins, diapers and most food products are printed using the same technology that is used for this product and under normal conditions this issue does not occur. It is our recommendation that packages such as this should be kept in a drawer or cabinet where the exposure of the product to harsh conditions is minimal.”

My English translation of the Medline message:

“We don’t deny the problem occurred, but it’s your own fault because of the “likely … harsh conditions” in your bathroom (high heat and humidity) which are not “normal conditions” for a bathroom so you need to seal the product in a heat and humidity proof drawer or cabinet which we are sure, without investigation, you can readily find to protect this product that cost less than $3.00. While we would have to recognize there is no warning about “harsh conditions” on the package, you are surely aware of the famous old saying, “buyer beware,” so take ownership of your trust, however misplaced, in our branded products and go have yourself a lovely day in the harsh conditions in your bathroom.”

Oh, yes, CVS did not refund the price of the product, presumably because the whole thing was my fault for maintaining “harsh conditions” in my bathroom. Nothing more to say, except that this decision has cost and will continue to cost CVS a vastly larger, though in the scheme of its business, an insignificant loss, in diverted business to its competitor at … Amazon.

To end on a more positive note, in keeping with the season, we recently ordered, in person at the local Whole Foods store, a cake for an event. We wrote on a note the message that was to be iced on the cake. It was not a hugely expensive cake but it was a nice one for our small group. We were told to pick it up at 10 am on the date of the event. We arrived on time and were met with “what cake?”

It took all of two seconds for the assistant manager, who happened to be in the bakery section that day, to direct the staff to prepare the cake immediately, with the prescribed icing and “there will be no charge.”

THAT, ladies and gentlemen, is how it is done. It’s called customer service. No arguments, no excuses, just fixed it. Done and done.

Have a happy holiday weekend. Shop until you drop, if you must. Keep your guard up and stay safe.

CVS Customer Service Fail

Back in 2014, I was very impressed with the CVS drugstore chain’s decision to stop selling tobacco. It was the first national retail pharmacy chain to stop selling tobacco products in all its stores with a claimed loss of $2 billion in sales. That’s a lot of money. And a lot of tobacco. Good for CVS. The company later reported that the decision was associated with a measurable reduction in cigarette sales in areas where CVS had at least a 15 percent share in the retail pharmacy market. https://bit.ly/2MCbzP7

As a regular user of CVS’s pharmacy services, I also buy a lot of other merchandise from their stores. One of the items I bought in June of this year was a package of cotton “rounds.” It looks like this, Beauty 360 being the CVS house brand:

Here is an email I sent CVS about the ensuing problem with the packaging:

The rounds come in a plastic tube designed to be opened at one end to remove the rounds as needed. I placed this package on a rack in my bathroom such that the package rested against the wall. … The package literally dissolved in the humidity of the bathroom and stuck to the wall. I have tried soaking it to scrape it off to no avail. It just damaged the paint.

I can only assume this has happened to others, but in any case, since it is CVS’s brand product, I look forward to your advice as to how to remove the plastic from the wall without damaging the wall. As renters, asking the building to do this could prove very expensive.

There ensued a short series of emails in which CVS asked me to return the product, which they would replace. I did. On July 6. They didn’t. By emails, CVS indicated they were testing the product to verify what I had reported. Weeks passed. More emails were exchanged in which I told CVS that I was not prepared to wait indefinitely for a response as to how the plastic could safely be removed from the wall. Silence.

I always wonder what goes on behind the scenes in large companies like CVS. Its stores are ubiquitous in the Washington area, where I previously lived, and in New York City. The company was reasonably quick to respond to my initial complaint but then, perhaps faced with confirmation of the validity of my complaint, decided to simply ignore me.

One thing is certainly true. I will not be ignored. And, thus, we are here, using the only tool at my disposal to try to shame CVS into responding to my documented complaint about a product sold under its brand. This is not the end of this saga but the beginning. I intend to file complaints in the near future with the Better Business Bureau and such other consumer protection agencies in New York City as I can find. CVS, this could all have been avoided if you had just acted responsibly.

 

Amazon Strikes Again

I don’t want to be seen as having some kind of crazy consumer’s vendetta against #Amazon, because I don’t. But I do believe that a company of Amazon’s scale has an obligation to conduct its business with some regard for its environmental impact. It appears to be failing at that and, given all the threats to the environment by the Trump administration and companies that place corporate interests ahead of the planet’s welfare, this warrants a call-out.

In an earlier post, I complained about what I saw as wasteful packaging procedures involving the use of boxes significantly larger than necessary to move the items in question. Since then, I have placed an order for eight items from Amazon Prime Pantry. The Pantry is the name @Amazon chose for grocery-like items that it now sells. “Grocery-like” is my term but is generally accurate for this service, except that there are many items “located” there that are also sold in drug stores like CVS.

Here is what I found when I opened the enormous box:

The photos tell the story. I was stunned at the size of the box used to ship the eight items which, together, occupied 2040 cubic inches (just shy of 1.2 cubic feet) of space. The box holds 4663.75 cubic inches of space (2.7 cubic feet), more than twice what was necessary for the items in question. The remainder of the space was filled with 4” x 7” plastic air bags, 85 of them!

I understand that it is sometimes unreasonable to expect the packaging to match precisely the combined size of the contents, but that was not the case here. Not even close. This and the package covered in the previous post are not the only times I have seen this.

Compare this photo of a recent coffee order received from Keurig, where the seven boxes almost exactly fit the outer box:

Amazon must do better at operating consistently with the interests of the planet and not just to maximize profits, though one would think that wasting packaging material on this scale leads to higher than necessary costs. You would think self-interest would drive the company to operate more efficiently. Maybe it would if enough customers complained. Amazon, don’t make me come down there!

Sleight of Hand by MLB and Facebook

The Washington Nationals are fighting for their 2018 lives from six games behind Atlanta or Philadelphia (varies by week as to who is in first place). Today, the Nats finish a 4-game homestand against Atlanta and they are down 2 games to 1. The final game of the set is today, playing as I write. To my complete surprise, the game is not being broadcast by MLB-TV through normal channels. Instead, as so cleverly put by MLB-at-Bat, to which I subscribe along with MLB-TV so I can watch the Nats games while living in New York City, the game is being live-streamed on Facebook as part of what is called the MLB-Facebook “partnership.” See screenshot below:

So, I did what I was prompted to do, but not my phone. I did it on the larger iMac screen. And, well, well, what do we have here but a collection of mandatory “free” subscriptions to various streaming services, including a demand for full credit card information even while  being assured that the card will not be charged.

 

Depending on which viewing option you select, you are presented with a mandatory signup for a “trial membership:”

Not a chance. If I wanted my credit card information in the hands of random streaming services, I would seek them out. MLB is using its “partnership to try to leverage fans into these services. I might not have been so offended by this abuse if, in announcing that today’s game would only be available by streaming on Facebook, MLB had disclosed that viewing the game that way would require opening a “free” account with a livestreaming service other than MLB-TV.

It seems likely that this scheme will induce some fans to sign up for these streaming services and on that basis MLB and Facebook will record the scheme as a win for them. What they will not count are the fans like me who are deeply disturbed by this game-playing with subscribers. This deal ranks right down there with what I was told a year ago – that I could purchase post-season tickets only if I also bought a block of tickets for the next season. I rejected that ridiculous proposal as well and added it to the reservoir of resentment against MLB teams’ manipulative schemes to force people to buy tickets.

As a fan, I want the Nationals to prosper and be competitive and also want the game of baseball to succeed. But, MLB is flirting with the limits of greed already, with obscene player salaries, sky-high ticket prices and concession stand charges that can kill your appetite faster than a cold plate of greasy nachos.

Something Amiss in AmazonLand

This may seem trivial in comparison with the latest Trump administration outrage, but given that he (and his right-hand grifter Scott Pruitt at the Environmental Protection Agency) continues to do everything in his power, and not, to destroy the environment, it seems important to point out issues that can be solved by simple exercise of private willpower. When our leadership, with the apparent support of 90 percent of Republican voters, (per New York Times today) is committed to turning the world’s natural resources over to private exploitation, we must encourage every possible act of environmental offset as possible.

Thus, I note that I recently ordered from Amazon, my generally “preferred” online vendor of stuff, a set of five “button batteries.” They are each smaller than a dime, fit easily onto a small piece of cardboard, as shown in the featured photo above and hard to find now that Radio Shack is largely a thing of the past (the nearest “authorized dealer” is 66 miles from my apartment). They only cost $6.99 at Amazon so ….

The big deal here is that the card on which the batteries are set out measures 2.125 inches by 7.25 inches. The cardboard is thinner than the cardboard used in pressed and folded shirts (or used to be). As the photo shows, the box in which Amazon shipped this item was filled with 14 pockets of air-filled plastic to “protect” this piece of cardboard. The box in which it arrived, strapped with the usual Amazon-branded tape, measures 10.125 inches long by 7.125 inches wide by 5.25 inches high. That is, for those who have forgotten their math, is 378.74 cubic inches of container to hold a virtually indestructible item occupying just under .8 cubic inches of space.

Now, to be fair to Amazon, this item actually came from another supplier, like the bazillions of suppliers with which Amazon has contracts to provide its listed items directly to consumers. But, the costs of this excess packaging must inevitably be passed on to Amazon and thus ultimately on to the consumer. That’s bad enough, given the very limited choices I had to obtain this item, but the environmental costs of the waste inherent in this approach to distribution are also passed on to me and everyone else in ways we cannot detect but are necessarily quite real.

Amazon, as the big boy in this scenario, is responsible for the waste committed by its supplier community in fulfilling orders obtained by Amazon. There is a perverse incentive of some kind working here because it would be in the economic interest of the suppliers to save money on packaging. Amazon needs to decisively compel its suppliers to use the most efficient methods of packaging available. In the case of the button batteries, a small padded envelope would have sufficed.