Marketplace - American Public Media

My Money Story: The economics of life in a wheelchair

Fri, 2015-02-13 08:16

Jay Cramer was rock climbing with friends in Malibu Creek State Park. He had just been chosen as a semi-finalist to appear on "Survivor," and he wanted to train. He had never been bouldering — free climbing with no ropes — but his friends were experienced. 

A 30-minute hike lead Cramer to a section of the park that was all water and rock. He took a few harmless falls into the water and got right back up. Then, clinging to the rock, he knew he was going down again. His friend told him to "just let go," but Cramer pushed off the rock instead. 

His head hit rock, he plummeted into the water below. And he couldn't move, couldn't flip over. Eyes open, conscious, he looked down into the water. His friends thought he was joking, but when they saw blood, they came to pull him out, and called for an airlift. 

After a long surgery, Cramer woke up in the hospital, paralyzed from the chest down. He shattered his C5 vertebrae, an incomplete injury that left him with feeling, but limited his movement. Fourteen of his friends spent the night in the hospital, and Cramer says when he saw them, he "knew everything was going to be okay."

"My finances changed when my mobility changed," Cramer says. "Because there are certain parameters that you have to live by when you need the things that I need."

Cramer is confined to a power wheelchair. He can drive, and says he's about 90 percent self-suffiencient, and leads a very normal life. He does need a caregiver in the mornings, to help him out, "and that can get quite expensive."

Government funded programs like In Home Supportive Services give people like Cramer money for a caregiver.

"In order to get that, in order to get Medi-Cal, and anything else that you need, there's only a certain amount of money you can have in your bank account, and there's only a certain amount of money that you can make, per month, in order to receive benefits," Cramer says. 

"It's a very, very fine line that you have to walk, so to speak, to make sure that you've got the money that you need to live and survive," he says. Balancing his own income with state support is tricky, but Cramer says there's a huge leap to get to total financial independence. 

Cramer says that in order to make enough money, "so that you don't receive any more benefits and you can be self-sufficient, it's quite a big jump, because there's a lot of things that you need to take care of now, medically."

"I am a very mobile person ... because it's not a when life hands you lemons you made lemonade kind of situation, it's you just want to live your life. It doesn't matter what kind of curve balls are thrown at you," Cramer said. "The best you can do is learn to adjust and adapt, which oddly enough are two of the important traits that it takes to get you through a game show like survivor." 

His life has changed a lot since his accident. He's found success as an actor and a comedian — the stand-up comedy community rallied around him after he was injured, helping to raise money that he eventually used to buy a car. He also started supervising the Know Barriers peer mentoring program at Rancho Los Amigos Rehabilitation Center. 

Cramer also found love. He was single at the time of his accident, but is now married to Katy Sullivan, an athlete who completed in the 2012 London Paralympic Games and a fellow actor. 

"You figure it out, you move and you shake, and you make your way through it," said Cramer, "I honestly see the sky as the only limit, and maybe not even that."

Calculate how much water you use

Fri, 2015-02-13 06:05
The average American family of five uses 500 gallons a day, but that depends on many factors. Curious about your own water footprint? Check out our water calculator here:

PODCAST: The film industry heads south

Fri, 2015-02-13 03:00

A very interesting report to watch is consumer sentiment from the University of Michigan. This early February reading will be especially helpful after the oddly anemic retail sales report yesterday, given new jobs being created and low gas prices. We get to the bottom of this emerging economic conundrum. Plus, When it comes to North American film production, Hollywood, New York, and Vancouver, Canada are obvious hot spots. But they are not alone. Among regions that have been using incentives to lure production is Georgia.

CEOs skip cybersecurity summit

Fri, 2015-02-13 03:00

President Barack Obama is in Silicon Valley Friday for a summit on cybersecurity.

He's trying to get more cooperation from tech companies in responding to massive data breaches. But some key players aren’t showing up.  

The CEOs of Google, Yahoo and Facebook are skipping the summit. They’re sending their information security executives to the summit instead. Only Apple’s Tim Cook will be there. 

Some analysts say the big tech dogs are staying away because of tensions between the White House and Silicon Valley.

“Most of it comes from the fact that the government wants to have their hands into everything," says tech analyst Jeff Kagan. "They want to control everything.”

He says specifically, the feds wants backdoor keys to software. The government says it needs the keys to, say, prevent a terrorist attack. 

But some Silicon Valley giants have protested. Kagan says more government control would hamper innovation.

“I think the government wants to have a hands on approach, and that’s something that  would be a death knell to the growth curve that we’ve seen over the last few decades. And that’s the struggle,” he says.

Kagan says it’s a matter of balance. President Obama is proposing a framework companies could use to share information during a major data breach, like we just saw at the insurer, Anthem. He thinks that could help.

The CEOs of American Express, Master Card, Visa and Walgreens are expected at Friday’s summit.

 

 

 

 

Georgia's film industry sees a boom

Fri, 2015-02-13 02:00

The Hunger Games. Selma. The Walking Dead. Georgia's film industry has seen rapid growth in the past decade, anchored by some of the biggest movies and television shows.

Chris Carr, Commissioner of the Georgia Department of Economic Development, says film has grown from a $250 million-a-year industry in 2007 to more than $5 billion in 2014. The state offers incentives, including a 20 percent tax credit for companies that spend at least $500,000 in state, and an additional 10 percent for producers willing to insert the state's peach logo into the credits.

Ed Richardson and Brian Livesay, CEOs of 404 Studio Partners, at the site of what will become Atlanta Metro Studios. 

Noel King

Brian Livesay is the CEO of 404 Studio Partners. His company will handle sales and marketing for the Atlanta Metro Studios, a new space currently under construction. He says he never considered Atlanta to be a movie-making hub, until a project he was working on was lured from Los Angeles to Atlanta. Now, he's in Georgia for good. And that state hopes to make stories like his the norm. 

Consumers are confident. So why aren't they spending?

Fri, 2015-02-13 02:00

Consumer sentiment is now at the same level as in 2004, well before the Great Recession hit. The University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment survey for February (preliminary) will be reported Friday, and the consensus among leading economists is that the measure will move modestly higher — to a reading of 98.5, compared to 98.1 in January.

“The American consumer is doing better, maybe paying down some debt, spending more,” says economist Chris Christopher at IHS Global Insight.

But consumers still aren’t on a spending spree. Retail sales in January were up only 0.2 percent after excluding volatile cars and gasoline (the figure was -0.8 percent including cars and gasoline). In December, spending (excluding cars and gasoline) didn’t rise at all.

“Median household income, adjusted for inflation, is still approximately 7 to 8 percent lower than it was in 2008,” says Christopher. “There are a lot of Americans who live paycheck to paycheck. Lower pump prices are helping them spend on higher food prices, which have been relatively elevated over the past year.”

Economists don’t expect consumer spending to rise strongly until wages across the income spectrum begin increasing at a faster pace than inflation, month after month.

The market doesn't charge for Florida's climate risk

Fri, 2015-02-13 02:00

Twenty-year government bonds and thirty-year mortgages are bumping into the horizons for serious damage to South Florida from rising seas. So far, those enormous risks haven’t sent home prices tumbling, or sent borrowing costs skyrocketing. The trillion-dollar question is: When and how will the market start charging for those risks? 

Financially, the most important piece of information about rising seas clobbering Miami and South Florida is the one nobody knows: When, exactly?

"Geologic time doesn’t give us that answer," says John Englander, author of “High Tide on Main Street: Rising Sea Level and the Coming Coastal Crisis.”

"It doesn’t get us down to human time scale of, 'What decade will it happen?'" he says. "Or, 'What year will it happen?'"

As a Fort Lauderdale home-owner, Englander thinks that uncertainty works to his advantage, for now. He thinks he might sell in five or ten years — to get out while the getting is good — and he thinks his case isn’t unusual. Even though the typical mortgage is 30 years, many home-owners think about their investment in five-year increments.

That’s the same horizon bond-rating agencies use when they evaluate public-works plans. That's as far as they can look, says Geoff Buswick, who runs the public-finance infrastructure group at Standard and Poors.

"Once you get past that, the financial forecasts are softer," he says. "Fifteen years from now, it could be a completely different management team, and a completely different environment."

There’s a reason big investors are OK with a five-year evaluations of what may be, on paper, a bond with a 20, or 30 or 100-year payoff.

"They’re not planning on holding that for 30 or a hundred years," says Sharlene Leurig, who runs the sustainable water infrastructure program for the non-profit Ceres. "They’re planning on flipping it, maybe in eight." 

So, from all sides, the risks don’t get priced into the market.

"Everyone thinks they’re going to be the first to realize where the risk is, the first to liquidate," says Leurig. "And that there will be an opportunity to roll that capital into the next thing, which will be less risky."

Keith London seems like someone who should be especially concerned about the risks of South Florida real estate. He’s a city commissioner and longtime homeowner in the Miami suburb of Hallandale Beach. Rising seas have already required some big spending there, just to protect the city’s drinking water supply.  

But he doesn’t think his town has it worse. Just first.

"We are the canary in the coal mine," he says. "We have all the issues and all the problems. But this is a bigger problem than just South Florida. There’s going to be global disruptions, everywhere."

He hopes that means global mobilization to address the challenges.

Meanwhile, he thinks South Florida is a fine place to live.

Everybody's a television producer

Fri, 2015-02-13 02:00

Move over, Amazon Prime and Netflix. BitTorrent is getting into the original content business. 

The company, known for its peer-to-peer file sharing platform, is teaming up with Rapid Eye Studios to create what they’re calling BitTorrent Originals. The first will be a sci-fi video series aimed at the coveted 14- to 25-year old-set, launching later this year.

“There’s really been an explosion of investment in originals, and a lot of this is borne out by what appears to be an insatiable appetite from consumers,” says S&P Capital IQ analyst Tuna Amobi.

BitTorrent has made efforts to shed its image as an enabler of illegal downloads by making deals to sell content from the likes of Radiohead and director David Cross. Still, in attracting advertisers for its new original shows, Rapid Eye Studio head Marco Weber says “the young and rebellious image of the brand” is a selling point.

Chocolate is more expensive. Everything is terrible.

Fri, 2015-02-13 01:30
100 lots

That's how many lots the city of Newark, New Jersey is selling for $1,000 a piece to couples of any sexual orientation as part of a special Valentine's day sale. As reported by NJ.com, the loving land owners must agree to build a home and live on their new plottage. 

54 percent

While only 20 percent of Fifty Shades of Grey readers were male, 54 percent of buyers of a Shades themed Teddy Bear are men. Some say merchandising from the film subjects that were once taboo into marketable commodities. And pre-ticket sales are doing well, also. See our grey-shaded chart below:

20 percent

Speaking of Fifty Shades of Grey, back when details of the film were being disrobed, some were titillated by reports that a fifth of the film would be sex scenes. That may be unusual for the film industry, but as Quartz points out, its kind of old news for television.

$700 million

That's how much Americans are likely to spend on Valentine's day ... for Fido. We really do love our pets. Check out more not-so-sunny Valentine's day facts over at Time, including the quantifiable amount that love dies over time.

$2,921.05

That's last month's price-per-ton for cocoa. As reported by the NY Times, that's higher than last year, partly due to greater global demand for dark chocolate, especially in Asia. So be prepared to spend more on sweets for your sweet.

Silicon Tally: Fly the friendly (and cheap) skies

Fri, 2015-02-13 01:30

It's time for Silicon Tally! How well have you kept up with the week in tech news.

This week, we're joined by Brian Kelly, otherwise known as "The Points Guy." Kelly prides himself on being "able to book exciting and extravagant trips for next to nothing through his hard-earned loyalty points and airline miles, flying first class."

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Port lockouts and the sea's importance in supply chain

Thu, 2015-02-12 14:37

Lawmakers from both parties are urging President Barack Obama to get involved in the labor dispute that has snarled ports on the West Coast for months. Container ships are stacked up from Los Angeles to Seattle. And now: Port operators locked out  workers Thursday, and they'll do it again over the upcoming Presidents Day weekend.  

An estimated $1 trillion dollars in goods moves through those ports annually – and when those goods stop moving, supply chains nationwide get broken. "There are an awful lot of people ... on the spectrum from concerned to panicked," says Allan Rutter, a researcher at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.

For instance, most manufacturing now runs on a “just-in-time” system.  When parts don't arrive, assembly lines can stop.

"What manufacturers are extremely good at is problem-solving, and coming up with work-arounds," says Robyn Boerstling, director of transportation and infrastructure policy for the National Association of Manufacturers.

But work-arounds are expensive. For instance, Fuji Heavy Industries says it’s paying $60 million a month to fly Subaru parts to U.S. plants to keep things running.

Some businesses are unable to ship things out of the country. California citrus growers say they’ve lost half a billion dollars in foreign business. Retailers are becoming unglued as they wait for imported products.

Dan Boaz, founder of airfreight.com, is looking at what happens once the ports start moving again. "It’s going be a whole 'nother secondary-effect nightmare. Everyone’s going to want to be at the front of the line, and everybody’s going to want to get their freight." And, he says, it’s going to be a great opportunity, for him.

 

Brazil is facing its worst drought in a century

Thu, 2015-02-12 14:08

If you wash your hands today in Sao Paulo, Brazil, you might be encouraged to do it with hand sanitizer instead of water. That's because Sao Paulo is in the middle of its worst drought in a century.

Marketplace Weekend host Lizzie O'Leary, on assignment in Brazil, tells Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal: "There's one stat that will probably blow your mind a little bit: 68 percent of the people here, in Sao Paulo, have had problems with the water supply in the past month. So that means the water pressure's lower, and there has been some talk of outright rationing."

For now, the government is offering price incentives to encourage residents to use less water. High-end restaurants are using plastic utensils, and students are told not to brush their teeth while in school. And an economy of private water trucks has sprung up, delivering water to the wealthy during the early-morning hours.

12 crazy facts about chickens, and then some

Thu, 2015-02-12 13:49

In his book "Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?" author Andrew Lawler trace's poultry's path from a few small forests to nearly every dinner table in America. 

Here's some stuff from the book that blew our minds:

1. At any given time, 20 billion chickens are alive and squawking on our planet. That's three for every human, and more than all the cats, dogs, pigs, cows and rats combined.

2. The only country without live chickens is Vatican City. The only continent without them is Antarctica.

3. Under federal law, chickens are not considered livestock, or even classified as animals, if they are raised for food. 

4. Though it can barely fly, the chicken has become the world's most migratory bird, in food form. One bird can be parceled out to half a dozen countries or more. For example: The feet go to China, the legs to Russia, wings to Spain, intestines to Turkey, bones to Amsterdam for soup and breasts to America.

5. In Ancient Greece, sacrificing a cock to Asclepius (the god of medicine) was a common practice of a sick person who wanted to get well. Today when we’re sick we eat chicken soup. Chicken does indeed have healing properties: The meat contains cysteine, an amino acid that is related to the active ingredient in a drug used to treat bronchitis. A 2011 study by an Iowa physician determined that people with viral illnesses who ate chicken soup recovered faster than those who didn’t.

6. Chicken bones found in western South America indicate that Polynesians reached the New World at least 100 years before Columbus, and that they were raising chickens first too. Pre-Columbian chickens means that Old World and New World humans met sometime after the end of the Ice Age and before Columbus.

7. Roosters have no penises. Instead, a male chicken fertilizes the female’s eggs by inverting its cloacae (the single-lane end of the urinary and digestive tracts) and pressing it against hers. “Biology can’t explain why our favored slang word for the male organ refers to a bird that lacks one,” Lawler writes.

8. Roosters are randy, maybe that’s why: “Male chickens prefer new partners to familiar ones. Scientists call this salacious behavior the 'Coolidge effect,'" Lawler writes. “During separate tours of a chicken farm by President Calvin Coolidge and his wife in the 1920s, Mrs. Coolidge remarked on a rooster that was busy mating. She was told that this behavior took place dozens of times daily. ‘Tell that to the president when he comes by,’  she said cooly. When the message was relayed, the president asked if the rooster mated with the same hen. He was told no, that the male preferred a variety of partners. ‘Tell that to Mrs. Coolidge,’ he responded.”

9. In 2007, a scientific team extracted a protein from a 68 million-year-old tyrannosaurus rex and found it to be identical to one that exists in the chicken. Let’s see if “Jurassic World” updates its dino-DNA video.

10. Chickens called "bilateral gynandromorphs" that contain distinctively male and female parts on separate sides of their bodies. This has occasionally led to chickens that look like roosters but can lay eggs. They inspired the mythological creature known as the basilisk, a rooster said to lay an egg that would hatch into a chicken with a lizard or dragon body.

11. Thank Charles Vantress next time you sit down to a chicken dinner. He won the “Chicken of Tomorrow” contest in 1951, sort of an X-prize for bigger-breasted poultry. To compete with pork and beef, A&P supermarkets helped organize the contest that challenged farmers, scientists and breeders to come up with “breast meat so thick you can carve it into steaks.” Nearly every chicken we eat today is a descendant of the Vantress.

12. Today the average American eats around 70 pounds of chicken a year, five times the 1950 amount. The chickens have also gotten much bigger. Before the “Chicken of Tomorrow” took hold, a broiler required an average of 70 days to reach the average weight of 3.1 pounds, with 3 pounds of feed needed per pound of bird. In 2010, only 47 days were needed to make a 5.7-pound bird that required less than 2 pounds of feed.

Caltech's little engineers that could

Thu, 2015-02-12 11:13

On a recent crisp winter morning at the child-care center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif., a group of educators gathered to plan their big teaching initiative for the year ahead.

“One of the questions was: How are we going to make engineering work in an infant space?" says Monica Dolan, an early educator who works with infants at The Children's Center, as Caltech's child-care center is officially known.

The center has always focused on teaching through science and math principles – after all, it is attached to Caltech – but diving into engineering curriculum for little ones was new.

“Usually when you think of engineering you're usually creating something,” says Dolan. “Coming up with the ideas, the blueprints.”

While infants aren't about to sketch a blueprint, they can create – with some assistance. Teachers use a lot of big cushion-y blocks to create structures the babies can climb on. It’s part of a strategy to get all children to learn through basic engineering principles, Dolan says.

“If you can start with the infants, then we can take those skills and build upon them every year,” she says. “So if at infant age, if they are already good at stacking and balance, then in the toddler yard they may already be using scales.”

In the next yard, teacher Seadra Chagolla and her toddlers are building a train. They scour the yard for materials to make carriages and find empty crates.

“It would fall under 'engineering' for them because they are thinking about something they want to create and figuring out different ways to create it on their own,” says Chagolla. 

Then a classic engineering problem strikes: resource scarcity. The crates run out and there are still 2-year-olds without a seat on the train. The toddlers solve it by finding chairs to create the needed train carriages.

Yard time is over, and back inside, Chagolla quiets the toddlers with a story.

“Young Iggy Peck is an architect and has been since he was 2, when he built a great tower in only an hour with nothing but diapers and glue.”

It’s deliberate here. From story time to free play, everything is geared toward age-appropriate learning through engineering principles, Chagolla says.

“Because they’re between 2 and 3, they’re still acquiring a lot of language and so there’s a lot of ideas that they have that are nonverbal," she says.

But not speaking doesn't mean they don’t get complex concepts. Toddlers here know and verbalize concepts like stability and balance because they are constantly named and reinforced.

In the preschool classroom, 4- and 5-year-olds are building straw rockets using just three items: fat straws, thin straws and tape.

Teacher Veronica Dayag engages the 4-year-olds like college students. “So I want to see if you can get your straw rockets to shoot all the way from where you’re sitting to the other side of the room," she says.

She asks them to start by sketching a blueprint, but doesn’t give them any other instructions. Each one uses tape, plus the big and little straws, and through trial and error figures out how to turn the materials into a rocket that shoots across the room.

Using engineering curriculum with small children optimizes what new research shows are the capabilities of small children’s brains, says Carrie Lynne Draper, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) director at Caltech’s Children’s Center.

What this really is about is a process that is natural to children,” she says.  “To get them to ask, to create, to test their ideas. Believe it or not, in the grown-up world that’s called the "engineering design process.'”

But it’s not just preschool advocates who believe an engineering education can start young. The strategy has support at the top end of the education pipeline, too. Gregory Washington, dean of the School of Engineering at the University of California, Irvine wants more women, black and Latino engineers in the field, and he says starting young is key.

“If you’re starting at preschool, you’re right about right in order to prepare kids to be ready as inventors and as problem solvers,” he says.

Average Costco customer makes six figures

Thu, 2015-02-12 09:37

American Express CEO Ken Chennault held an unscheduled call with analysts today to warn everybody that AmEx's credit-card partnership with warehouse retailer Costco is going to expire next year.

AmEx shares lost 6.5 percent as a result.

Most interesting factoid of the whole story?

The average Costco customer has an income of $100,000 a year.

This might hurt a bit: The downside of Ukraine's IMF loan

Thu, 2015-02-12 09:37

Two major developments regarding Ukraine were announced Thursday. The first is a fragile ceasefire with the pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine, and the second is an expanded loan program from the International Monetary Fund. 

"If you asked me which of the two deals are more important, it' s probably the IMF deal, because the IMF deal is more likely to stick," says Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, a research and consulting firm.

The package requires difficult reforms to combat corruption, reduce public spending and – most critically – reform the country's energy sector. Many of these conditions will have to be met up front, and approved by Ukrainian legislators, says Anders Aslund, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and a former economic adviser to Russia and Ukraine.

The most difficult conditions concern reforming the state-owned natural gas company and reducing its generous subsidies. Those subsidies keep gas for residential heating cheap, but also cause the company to lose about $4 billion a year, according to Thierry Bros, senior analyst for European gas and energy markets for Societe Generale. 

Who benefits when Expedia buys the competition?

Thu, 2015-02-12 09:37

Expedia announced Thursday that it's acquiring rival travel company Orbitz for $1.6 billion. This comes on the heels of Expedia buying Travelocity a few weeks ago, and leaves Priceline as its only major competitor in online travel booking.

Expedia already has significant bargaining power with airlines and hotels to negotiate things like fees and access to inventory.

“They’ve got a lot of customers at their disposal, a big share of the market, so they can command supplier’s attention in a way that smaller players cannot," says Doug Quinby, vice president of research with research firm Phocuswright.

Thursday's news shouldn’t affect consumers’ travel costs one way or the other, says Rich Maradik, founder of nSight Travel, a market research firm. "In the end this just puts more pressure on hotels, and squeezes their profits,” he says.

Quiz: Living close to the community

Thu, 2015-02-12 07:37

Less than 25 percent of community colleges provide on-campus housing, but the number of schools with dorms is growing, according to the American Association of Community Colleges.

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'Fifty Shades' of merchandising

Thu, 2015-02-12 07:18

For a movie about a salacious, secretive, and to some, potentially shameful subject such as S&M, it sure feels like "Fifty Shades of Grey" is well out of the closet — or really, the dungeon.

Even the film's sequels are already being planned. Fandango, the online ticket company, says it’s setting a record, pre-selling more tickets than any other R-rated movie has.

And while it would seem the risque nature of this film could make selling spin-off merchandise a little more difficult than most, there is a lot of it for sale. It seems like there are as many variations of merchandise for the new film as there are Pantone color chips — and don't worry, for the graphic designer fan of the soon-to-be-released film, there's something for you too.  However, the question remains:  Who's buying?

If you were planning to crack open a bottle of "Fifty Shades of Grey"-branded White Silk or Red Satin on opening night, Paul Katz, a manager at L&P Wines and Liquors in Brooklyn, says perhaps you should reconsider. The wine has hardly been a best-seller, he says, with the bottles on store shelves mostly gathering dust.

"If you like the label you can get it," Katz says, "You’re taking on your own risk."

He hasn't read the book, and his wife was responsible for the store's purchase, he says. And when he calls to check if she had read the book — turns out she’d read all three — he found himself planning to make another purchase, again to please his wife.

“Do you want to go to the movie – to see it?” Katz says into his cellphone.

  

Another ticket sold. But there’s going to a movie, in the privacy of a darkened theater, and then there’s buying tie-in merchandise.

“I’m trying to be discrete,” says Kristi Faulkner, a co-founder and president of the martketing consultancy Womenkind, of the "Fifty Shades" merchandise. “But Target is selling them – who knew? Who could believe that?”

Indeed, Target is selling "Fifty Shades of Grey" adult devices – the kind with batteries. However, as Faulker points out, there’s a dichotomy between the book and its wider brand.

“So many people read these books digitally, privately, and yet these products are being sold in the most public way,” she says. “Are you going to throw your 'Fifty Shades of Grey' electronic device into your cart with your laundry detergent and your diet soda and your baby food and your pampers? Is that really going to happen?”

While the answer may be unclear, Faulkner says all this "Fifty Shades" merchandise is doing something. She calls it "permission marketing." After all, a "Fifty Shades of Grey" T-shirt could make a taboo subject like S&M a little more approachable.

Sometimes a gift is really a gift for the giver.

“Men are notorious for buying lingerie and things for themselves,” she says. “It’s an opportunity for guys – guys who didn’t read the book but want to benefit from the ideas, so to speak,” Faulkner says.

Which may be what purchasers of the Vermont Teddy Bear Company’s "Fifty Shades of Grey" bear have in mind. Innocently fuzzy, at first glance the bear looks like any typical teddy until you spot his tiny mask and handcuffs.

 

The \"Fifty Shades of Grey\" bear, from Vermont Teddy Bear.

Courtesy:The Vermont Teddy Bear Company

 

While only 20 percent of Fifty Shades readers were male, 54 percent of the bear’s buyers are men, says Bill Shouldice, president and CEO of the Vermont Teddy Bear Company.

But Jenn Drexler, a senior vice president with Insight Strategy Group, wants to make it clear that Mr. Bear, and most of the "Fifty Shades" merchandise work mainly as gag gifts.

“It’s one of those flip things where you can’t believe you live in a world where this can happen – so it’s so awesome,” she says of the bear.

And, FYI, the Vermont Teddy Bear company says so far this is its best-selling Valentine’s Day bear, but what may be good for the licensee may not always be good for the licensor.

“You have to wonder when does licensing crossover into value for the brand,” Drexler says. “When it goes into gag gifts?”

While the "Fifty Shades" brand is paid a royalty based on the sales of the bears,  Drexler notes that if people aren't putting the teddy bear on their beds, or their baby in a onesie that says “9 Months ago mommy read 50 Shades of Grey” – it won’t do much for the "Fifty Shades" brand.

 

A \"Fifty Shades of Grey\" onesie for sale at Inktastic.com

Inktastic.com

 

“They’ll get wallet share, but I don’t think they’re going to get heart,” she says.

When consumers love a brand, Drexler says, they’ll go as far as to have it tattooed — think Harley or Jack Daniels — but “I don’t know if anyone is doing a 'Fifty Shades' tattoo any time soon.”

The problem with this particular brand is it’s one women like to keep private.

“There’s a reason women weren’t getting together and talking — like 'I’ve always wanted to be tied up.' Like, that’s not replacing Oprah’s book club anytime soon,” Drexler says.

What title to read was up for discussion at a recent Brooklyn book club meeting. All the women in attendance are moms and while most were OK with the "Fifty Shades of Grey" baby clothes, host Megan Schade was not.

“I realize because it betrays my own Victorianism," she says. "In the sense that, how else does baby get here than by two people having sex? And that’s what this shirt is referring to."

Book club members Elizabeth Nelson, Renata Segura, Megan Schade and Jen Hanssen check out the \"Fifty Shades of Grey\" teddy bear.

Sally Herships/Marketplace

The wine, while deemed a flop, was also approved as a potential gag gift.

“It tastes like a wine cooler," says Elizabeth Nelson, another book clubber. “Very inoffensive. It’s probably what people who like the book, like to drink.”

“I don't think this wine was made for drinking,” Schade says, “It was made as a gift. It's a giving wine."

But the bear seemed to stir up the most discomfort.

"Poor Mrs. Bear," Schade says.

"Not OK," says club member Renata Segura. "Is this for a child or a grownup?"

"I see a crazy cat lady having that teddy bear," Nelson says.

But once some basic facts were established — that the bear is a stuffed toy intended for adult play only, and that it costs $89.99 — Seguara decided she wanted the bear, but only if she didn't have to foot the bill.

“If somebody gives it to me for free, not my husband buying it for me with my money, with our money, “ she says. “Maybe from somebody else, but not from my bank account."

Expedia buys Orbitz – what it means for you.

Thu, 2015-02-12 03:00

Expedia is going to buy rival Orbitz for about $1.3 billion.

The boards of both companies have approved the deal. Orbitz shareholders still have to give it the thumbs up. Assuming that happens, what’s in it for consumers?

You might be thinking you'll have to pay more for airline tickets. After all, the online travel site business is consolidating. Expedia bought Travelocity late last month.

“Certainly, there is one less independent choice, and anytime that happens, let’s face it, that’s not likely to push prices down for consumers,” says Seth Kaplan, managing partner of Airline Weekly.  

Kaplan says it might be a bit harder to find good deals. 

But not much, because Expedia still has lots of competition, from airline websites to more innovative sites like Hipmunk and HotelTonight.   

Kaplan says Expedia isn’t buying up its rivals to hike airfares. It’s trying to gain leverage with airlines, which don’t like allocating tickets to third party sites like Expedia. They’d rather sell their tickets themselves.

“Expedia, if it’s bigger, can go to airlines and say, 'Look, we control that many more millions of customers, and so you have to care what we think,'" he says.

Kaplan says Expedia wants lots of plane tickets to sell, because that’s what consumer buy first. Then we move on to rental cars and vacation packages, which are marked up more. That’s where Expedia makes its money. 

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