Marketplace - American Public Media

Wal-Mart aims to make a buck from your gift card

Fri, 2014-12-26 05:29

If you received a gift card for Christmas, Wal-Mart wants to make you an offer: Trade it in for a Wal-Mart gift card... for less than face value. An estimated billion dollars worth of gift cards may go unused this year, and Wal-Mart hopes to take a chunk of that business. 

The retail giant is partnering with an outfit called, which is already in the business of trading in slightly-used gift cards— offering a check, or PayPal, or an Amazon gift card. Here are some examples:

Some sample offers from, as found on the morning of Dec. 26 2014.

Dan Weissmann/screenshot from

Card Cash then turns around and offers the cards for sale through its site— at higher prices than it pays. Target cards sell for face value, for instance. Home Depot cards go for 6 percent off. Starbucks cards go for 12.5 percent off.

Wal-Mart, in this partnership, offers slightly better terms for its cards. Here are some offers retrieved from the partnership site:

Some offers from the Wal-Mart side of, as found the morning of December 26, 2014.

Dan Weissmann/screenshot from


Sucharita Mulpuru,  a retail analyst with Forrester Research, says gift cards are such a big business, it was just a matter of time before Wal-Mart got into secondary markets like this. 

However, she is surprised that Wal-Mart is partnering with a company that does so much business with arch-rival Amazon. "If I were in a partnership with any company, I probably would not want them to have significant relations with my biggest competitor," she says. 


Coke to make cuts amid sales slump

Fri, 2014-12-26 02:04

The Wall Street Journal reports that Coca Cola has plans to lay off as many as 2,000 employees in the next few weeks. Coke announced in October that it is seeking to cut costs amid falling profits. The company is slashing budgets: asking executives to take taxis instead of limousines, and reportedly canceling a Christmas party for Wall Street analysts.

The belt-tightening comes as America's love affair with soda pop has chilled in recent years. U.S. consumers are increasingly turning to healthier, cheaper beverages to quench their thirst, including water. Coke owns the water brand, Dasani, and recently started selling milk, in an attempt to keep pace with changing tastes. 

Airlines use illusion to make coach seem more spacious

Fri, 2014-12-26 02:03

Like most of us, you have probably flown coach recently. Did it seem spacious to you? Probably not. Airlines are hoping to change that—not with bigger seats, but by creating the impression of more room with larger video screens and new headrests.

Joe Brancatelli runs JoeSentMe, a website for business travelers. He says the illusion is just that: an illusion. Coach seats have gotten smaller he says and they continue to get smaller.

The whole shrinking airplane seat situation makes Joe Brancatelli thinks of a Marx Brothers' joke. It's the one where Groucho calls up room service and asks them to send up more room. Instead, they send up more people to his tiny space.

Brancatelli says airplane perks like larger video screens are distractions from slimmer seats which are now seven inches less than an average desk chair. Meanwhile, he says first class keeps getting nicer.

The difference in comfort between first class and coach is growing Brancatelli says. “It really is a yawning gap culturally,” he says, “and people are beginning to seize on this and say it's like what is going on in society.”

Chris Lopinto has noticed the increasing difference between the two airplane classes. Lopinto is co-founder of He points to how American Airlines is concentrating more on first class as it upgrades its fleet. Lopinto says, “That's the way it is because that's where a lot of the revenue comes from.”

Lopinto says in American Airlines' new planes, economy fliers will get some upgrades like more personal video screens, power outlets, and pay-as-you-go wifi.

 As for the seats, he says if anything they are going to get a tad smaller.

Blackberry plans self-destructing phone

Fri, 2014-12-26 02:03

The Canadian smartphone company Blackberry has partnered with Boeing to make a phone that can self-destruct if it gets into the wrong hands.

The phone is designed for people in the defense and security industries. Blackberry is hoping this emphasis on security will tap into a growth market and turn the company around. Aptly named the “Boeing Black,” any attempt to crack it open triggers a Mission Impossible-style deletion of data and renders the phone inoperable.

Apple and Samsung may rule the consumer-side of smartphones for some time, “…but on the business-side and the government-side, Blackberry is gold,” notes Jeff Kagan, a tech industry analyst based in Atlanta. He says smartphone security is growth industry, and it won’t be just the Boeings of the world, who want these added protections. 

In need of a white Christmas? Head to Hawaii

Thu, 2014-12-25 12:58

The White Christmas that Irving Berlin dreamt about was uncommon this year around the country...

But one place that did get a little snow? Hawaii.

Two mountains on the Big Island had a rare blizzard. The snow is only expected to last a day or two, but if you're desperate to see the white stuff, you could fly today ... from Los Angeles, California, for about $700.


You can copyright music, so why not a food recipe?

Thu, 2014-12-25 11:29

Entrepreneurs and business owners constantly face intense competition in attracting new customers and retaining old ones. They must stand out and be original. Which is why people register their original creations with the United States Copyright Office, to legally protect the logo, design, literary work, architecture, etc., that they have spent so much time and money on.  

But would you be able to do the same thing for, say, your homemade sugar cookies? Or any other food recipe for that matter?

Unfortunately, nope. Anyone can pass off your grandmother's recipe that's been passed through generations. "You can't copyright the ingredients or steps necessary to make the cookie," says Jane Ginsburg, professor at Columbia Law School.

Sean Parker donates $24 million for allergy research

Thu, 2014-12-25 07:57

Sean Parker, the tech entrepreneur who founded Napster and the first president of Facebook, donated $24 million to Stanford University to create a center for allergy research.

Parker suffered from severe food allergies all his life, and with his gift, joins a long line of philanthropists who have given large donations to cure or alleviate diseases that affect them personally.

Parker and other young tech entrepreneurs differ slightly from their predecessors in that they're likely to donate large sums directly to an academic or medical institution rather than starting a foundation of their own. 

Retailers hope for one last Christmas shopping push

Thu, 2014-12-25 07:53

Just like past years, stores will open early on December 26 to try to draw shoppers in with deep discounts. It’s a way for retailers to get one last revenue push before the new year, and to clear inventory that didn’t sell before Christmas. 

This year, the calendar is more favorable than usual for retailers because of the three-day weekend. Many workers will take off Friday — and hopefully shop. “Giving people more time to shop, giving them a little bit more room, and giving them a little bit more money in their pocket thanks to lower gas prices, could make a difference for retailers,” says Claes Bell, an analyst at

Economist Chris Christopher at IHS says consumers are heading into 2015 more optimistic about job prospects and personal finances than in previous years. He predicts retail sales for the 2014 holiday season will rise more than 4 percent, compared to the 3.1 percent increases in 2012 and 2013.

At a Christmas Eve open-air craft market called "Festival of the Last-Minute" in Portland, Oregon, shoppers were mixed on whether they wanted to go back out for more shopping on the post-Christmas weekend. “I have in the past, but I probably won’t now, I probably won’t brave the crowds,” says Britt Fredrickson, who has two young children. “I just don’t need any more stuff right now.”

But Jessica Martin-Weber, who has six daughters, said she’s looking forward to getting out. “My husband and I typically get the day after Christmas or the day after that, where we go catch a movie and we do some shopping.”

Would you like a cat with your cappuccino?

Thu, 2014-12-25 02:30

It’s 10:00 AM and Sara Pritchard is at a cafe in Oakland. But instead of tapping at a computer or chatting with a friend, she’s stalking the room looking for the perfect cat to snuggle. She's at the new Cat Town Cafe, the first Cat Cafe in America.

There are cats sleeping under cat murals, cats pouncing on feather toys, there are even cats climbing on a miniature downtown Oakland. These coffee shops filled with cats are starting to open around the country. They’ve been a phenomenon in Japan, have spread across Europe, and have recently invaded Denver and Manhattan.

But if you think there will be a Siamese lounging on the biscotti, think again. The Cat Zone is separated from the coffee shop by a small hallway; an air lock, or as they call it, a “hairlock.” Staff from the food area can’t enter the Cat Zone during their shift and vice-versa. But patrons are welcome to bring their food in — that is the point after all.

But Cat Town is not a cafe that has cats, it’s an adoption center that lures in humans with its coffee shop.

“For me, this is cat rescue first and foremost. And the measure for me is how many cats are getting adopted,” says Cat Town Cafe founder Ann Dunn.

Cat Town makes it its mission to find homes for cats that aren’t doing well at the shelter. Dunn and her staff were at it for over three years before they opened the cafe. “This, hopefully, will become a model: cage free. Put them in an environment where they’ll thrive, and they’ll get adopted more quickly,” says Dunn.

It’s like the rebranding of cat adoption — and it’s working. A brown tabby named Anchor had been at the shelter for  four months, but once he arrived, Anchor found a home within 2 hours. Before the cafe opened, Cat Town adopted out about a dozen felines a month. After two months here, that number is up to 59.

Actually, make that 60.

“We're getting a cat!” Sarah Pritchard just made a friend: Guthrie. “There in the little bed right now, with the yellow eyes,” Pritchard says.

So the next time you grab a latte, you might leave with a new family member.

New minimum wage laws bring Walmart pay raises

Thu, 2014-12-25 02:00

Walmart is raising wages. The country’s largest private retailer says it’s doing so in order to stay in compliance with 21 states raising their minimum wages in the new year. But, while it might seem counter-intuitive, paying higher wages could mean a better bottom line, not just for workers, but also for Walmart.

Click the media player above to hear more.

Oil prices shoot sky-high. Olive oil, that is.

Thu, 2014-12-25 02:00

Most olive oil comes from Europe — where producers have had one of the worst growing seasons in 20 years — for a number of reasons.

First, last year was a bumper crop, and apparently the trees tend to get tired the following year. More importantly, the weather was lousy for olives, and great for insects like the olive fly. It lays eggs inside the fruit, the maggots dig their way out, and ... yuck. There were other bugs too, and a fungus; they all had a great year. The International Olive Council projects that production will be down 27 percent worldwide. The world’s biggest producer is Spain, and production is down more than 50 percent there.

And while supplies are low, demand has grown in the past two decades. Global consumption is about 50 percent higher than in the early 1990s.

That means high prices, and a higher likelihood that more olive oil will be fake.

What gets sold as Italian extra-virgin olive oil often isn't. It may not be Italian, may not be extra-virgin, and may not be 100 percent olive oil. A lot of oil that’s bottled in Italy actually gets imported from elsewhere, and others have reported that some bottlers adulterate the product.

Tom Mueller — who wrote an exposé on the whole setup for the New Yorker, and then a book called “Extra Virginity” — told the L.A. Times recently that anything priced under 12 bucks a liter almost certainly wouldn't be extra-virgin Italian olive oil from this year’s harvest.

On the other hand, production doubled in Greece this year. And it almost tripled in Tunisia. So a bottle that says it came from one of those two countries is more likely to be the real thing.

Detroit real estate on the rise

Thu, 2014-12-25 02:00

After suffering through some of the very worst of the Great Recession and housing crisis, property values and rents in Detroit are headed back up again. Developer Richard Baron is the CEO of St. Louis-based McCormack Baron Salazar, which is building 400 new rental units.

“The market has firmed up very nicely, certainly for apartments in downtown, around the core, and we think that it will continue to grow,” says Baron.

Even the long-stalled market for single-family houses is beginning to approach pre-recession levels.  

“If anything, our biggest challenge is that I have way more buyers than I do quality houses that are move-in ready,” says Ryan Cooley, an agent for O’Connor Real Estate. Despite the good news for downtown, Cooley says many outlying neighborhoods are not seeing the same turnaround.

'Christmas Story' house a major award for Cleveland

Thu, 2014-12-25 02:00

Ten years ago, San Diego entrepreneur Brian Jones bought a ramshackle house in Cleveland. 

But don’t write this off as your standard fixer-upper yarn, as that rickety heap was used in the filming of the 1983 holiday classic, “A Christmas Story”.  You know, the one with little Ralphie wishing for a Red Ryder BB Gun, but forever warned he’ll “shoot his eye out.”

 Jones took a brave shot himself at saving the house, which he has turned into one of Cleveland's biggest tourist attractions. 

Coming in from the cold, the day’s first tour — about 20 people — squeeze into “A Christmas Story” House. They’re greeted by tour guide Jeff Woodard. 

“Come on in, welcome to Ralphie and Randy’s,” he smiles.

The visitors play with a Red Ryder BB gun or pose with the infamous leg lamp by the window. There are also elf hats and other novelty head wear, though the “pink nightmare” bunny pajamas are across the street in the gift shop.

Woodward explains how this house was used during the filming of “A Christmas Story” in 1983.

“Basic rule of thumb is, if you can see a shot through a window or through a doorway into outdoor ambient light, that shot was filmed in this house,” he says.

But after filming wrapped up, 3159 West 11th Street became just another address in hardscrabble Cleveland. Nature, via economic downturn, took its course.

Then in 2004, Brian Jones — a fan of the movie who had also launched a thriving leg lamp enterprise the year before — learned that the home was listed on eBay for $99,000.

“Never mind that the houses in this area are $25,000 and $30,000 homes,” says Woodward. “(Jones) doesn’t know that, he doesn’t care. He calls the two brothers who own the house, and he says, 'Make you a deal. You take this off of eBay today, I will write you a check for $150,000.'”

The visitors gasp.

Flash forward to today.  Jones, who lives in Florida now but drops in every now and then on business, reflects on the time and money spent restoring the house to its cinematic grandeur, inside and outside.

“You’re looking at about one and a half million dollars invested over the past decade,” says Jones.

The house now sees visitors from all over the world.

“There was guy from South Africa," says Jones. "He was crawling under the sink, just like Randy: "'Daddy’s gonna kill Ralphie.'"

And last year, Jones launched the Christmas Story House Foundation, which helps fix up other homes in the immediate neighborhood. Last year it raised $60,000. 

Rich Weiss was a beneficiary. He applied for funding and got approved this past year. “A completely painted house exterior, and a completely replaced porch, that isn’t inexpensive,” Weiss says.

While the operators of “A Christmas Story” House and Museum wouldn’t disclose annual revenues, it’s safe to say, with most of its 50,000 annual visitors paying the adult admission rate of ten dollars, that its profits are cozier than a set of pink bunny pajamas.  



PODCAST: Cat cafe

Thu, 2014-12-25 01:45

As oil prices plummet, what is the effect on the alternative energy sector. We find out. Plus, a surge in jobs has brought people back to downtown Detroit, making apartments scarce and prompting a building boom. And Oakland cat-lovers Adam Myatt and Ana Dunn opened Cat Town Cafe - the country's first feline filled coffee shop - and they have been so busy that they are taking reservations. The main product isn’t the hip local coffee and bagels, it is the cats themselves.

How to close a deal on a Christmas tree

Wed, 2014-12-24 14:30

Ernest Parker Jr. sells trees at Frosty’s Christmas trees in Los Angeles. But selling trees is really more of a hobby for Parker, who used to work for the health department. He says his wife told him he had to find something to do after he retired.

“It’s not so much about the money for me, it’s something to do, it keeps me in shape,” Parker says.

Even after seven years working at the same stand, Parker says he looks forward to selling trees every year.

“We’re a big part of this community now, so it’s a great pleasure to work here on this lot," Parker says. 

Modern gift-wrap tradition has ties to Hallmark

Wed, 2014-12-24 13:53

Maybe you’ve already started wrapping your holiday presents. Or maybe you’re one of those up-past-midnight-on Christmas-Eve types.

Either way, the Christmas wrapping session is a holiday tradition. You put the kids to bed, maybe pour yourself a glass of wine and line up the tape, the scissors and the rolls of printed paper.

But where did this ritual come from?

“Have you read "Little Women?" my friend Nancy asks. “The opening chapter is about the girls deciding that they’re giving up their Christmas gifts to help a poor family, and then they decide to use their allowance money to each buy a present for their mother. Somebody gives her a handkerchief, somebody else gives her perfume, and they don’t really wrap them. They tie a rose onto it I think – or some kind of flower.”

Turns out, wrapping presents – especially in paper printed with holiday scenes – is a relatively new thing.

In the early 20th century, “there was plain paper. So there may have been solid white, solid red, green that a package could have been wrapped in,” says Sharman Roberts, the archivist and historian for Hallmark.

An accident of sorts changed things, she says. 

In 1917, J.C. and Rollie Hall – the guys who would go on to found Hallmark – had a stationary shop in downtown Kansas City. They sold out of the plain wrapping paper, so Rollie went back to the warehouse for more. Instead, he brought back sheets of fancy French paper.

“They were printed in bold colors, lots of patterns, very stylized, and we used them for envelope liners at that time,” Roberts says.

The papers flew off the shelves, and, boom: an industry was born.

By the 1920s Hallmark was printing its own wrapping paper. Today, the gift-wrap industry is worth more than $3 billion.

And for some people, the annual opportunity to wrap stacks of presents is no chore.

It is a privilege.

I made a gift-wrapping date with my friends Laura Weber Davis and Nancy Kaffer. Davis is a producer for Detroit Public Radio, and Kaffer is a columnist for the Detroit Free Press. They – we – are women who make our living writing and talking about Serious Things.

And gift wrapping is serious business.

“I come from a family of gift-wrappers,” Laura says. “My grandfather was a [World War II] engineer and carried his military precision on to wrapping.”

There are rules to wrapping.

No. 1: No gift bags.

“Everyone who’s really obsessed with wrapping presents knows gift bags are a shoddy substitute. They’re the poor man’s gift-wrap package,” Nancy says.

Another rule: No shiny tape.

“I’m also weird about not using more paper than I need to,” Laura says as she demonstrates her measuring and cutting skills, honed during three years she spent working the gift-wrap counter at a department store. Nancy and I are a little jealous.

Nancy tries her hand at a rather elaborate trick, using an X-acto knife to slice a star out of a piece of paper that will go over a contrasting paper, concealing a box of Lego Friends.

We talk about the right balance of papers under the tree, the beauty of a perfectly offset bow, and the fact that the care we put into these packages is worth the time an effort, even when our handiwork is ripped to shreds by some kid.

It’s a little bit like the Tao,” says Nancy. ”It’s the way and the goal.”


Nicaragua's much-touted canal meets with opposition

Wed, 2014-12-24 13:33

Nicaragua has broken ground on a nearly 200-mile shipping canal that will carve the country, including Lake Nicaragua, to link the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

The Nicaraguan government says the canal will create jobs and investment that will lift the country out of deep poverty, but plans for the project have been accompanied by considerable skepticism.

The idea for a cross-Nicaragua canal is 200 years old, yet every time plans have been put into action, they have failed. Jean-Paul Rodrigue, a Hofstra University professor who studies global trade and transport, says Nicaragua is probably attempting it once again because a Hong Kong-based firm is raising a reported $50 billion to get the job done. "Nicaragua has a lot to benefit out of this, without forking [over] any of the capital," Rodrigue says. 

The benefits for ordinary Nicaraguans remain to be seen. The promise of jobs that have yet to materialize may be further undercut by worries over the environmental impact on Lake Nicaragua, the largest freshwater lake in the region. Pedro Alvarez, who teaches civil and environmental engineering at Rice University, says he fears that dredging Lake Nicaragua, a vital source of drinking and agricultural water, will lead to " dead zones. "


Will 'The Interview' make money for Sony?

Wed, 2014-12-24 11:39
Sony Pictures released the Seth Rogen film "The Interview" on various digital media platforms today. It is available for purchase ($15 plus tax) or rent ($6) on Google Play, YouTube Movies (yes, there is such a thing), Microsoft's Xbox, and a special website Sony created for the film.

Marketplace opted for the purchase option:

Purchased for a grand total of $16.13, we are about to watch #TheInterview on YouTube

— Marketplace (@Marketplace) December 24, 2014

The movie clocks at two hours, but its plot has dragged on for weeks — it was at the center of an international hacking incident attributed to North Korea, in which troves of Sony Pictures' secret financial data and executive emails were released.

The film will also be screened in some 200 movie theaters across the country on Christmas Day. It was originally scheduled for a wider release, but the nation's top movie theater chains canceled screenings after attackers issued a threat. Sony then announced its intentions to release the film following a public scolding by President Obama

Now, the question is whether the film will actually recoup the reported $90 million it cost Sony to make and market the movie. 

"I would be shocked if they're going to recoup their ... investment," says Peter Kafka, a senior editor at the technology and media site Re/code. "You can sort of work out how many folks they need ... to rent this thing to make it worthwhile."

That number would be about 16.7 million rentals, if the studio was getting 100 percent of the proceeds from each sale. It won't be.

John Sloss, who advises on digital media distribution at Cinetic Media, says "The Interview" would have had a much better chance at making money if Sony had released the film earlier and on every digital platform at once. After all, he says, cinemas aren't where the profits are for studios.

"More often than not, the theatrical is a loss leader, because most of the releasing costs go onto the theatrical release, which builds awareness," which then helps sell the film on other platforms with better margins, says Sloss.

Sony might have gotten between 40 and 50 percent of the price of a movie ticket at the cinema. But, it'll get between 70 and 90 percent of the money spent on the various video on demand platforms that are showing "The Interview."

"In a couple of years, transactional VOD, when combined with DVD, will exceed the revenue of DVD when it was at its height 10 years ago," says Sloss, adding that that could total to about twice as much as a film makes in movie theaters.

The question now is whether the enormous attention the film has gotten because of the cyber attack will translate to enough viewers — and enough positive word of mouth from those who initially see the movie — to add up to significant revenues for Sony Pictures.

And how did Marketplace feel about the movie?

[View the story "Marketplace watches "The Interview" live" on Storify]  

Tech in 2015: We'll be connected 24/7

Wed, 2014-12-24 11:16

This year, we saw some sci-fi-worthy advances in technology that included drones, virtual reality and space exploration. But in 2015, what technology can we expect that will actually change our everyday lives?

Marketplace Tech host Ben Johnson says, get ready for more Internet.

"We're going to be connected, and more effectively connected, not just by our cell connection but by Wi-Fi, all the time," Johnson says.

That ubiquitous Wi-Fi connection might have some drawbacks depending on how you feel about advertisements. "We're going to get advertisements delivered to our phones that relate to the places around us," he says.

If you're not ready to have ads following you around the mall, you have options. "There is a creepy aspect to this ... and we do have some control where you can actually turn off notifications or location reporting on your phone," Johnson says.

Volatility could (maybe) signal end of the bull market

Wed, 2014-12-24 11:13

Volatility in the markets has spiked recently. And while it may be subsiding, some tea-leaf readers expect to see it spike again. 

After all, there is a measure of uncertainty in the markets, and there is much to be uncertain about regarding a whole lot of things right now, like emerging markets, declining oil prices, declining growth in China, problems in Russia ... and so on. 

But there's a seasonal aspect to this volatility, too, which means market strategists are trying to divine whether we can expect more of it, and whether it's a sign of an imminent correction.