Today’s Gems

Here’s what I mined from the Mothernet Lode this morning:


Regarding Social Security:

According to the Social Security Administration, Social Security benefits account for 90% of income for four of every 10 unmarried retirees and two of every 10 married couples.

Another report on the Social Security Web site tells us that the average Social Security benefit for a retired worker is now $1,082.30 a month. That’s before the Medicare part B premium of $96.40.

                Regarding Sprint:

The company has been sued repeatedly, including as recently as February, for allegedly extending customers’ contracts without adequate consent. For years the company fared poorly on satisfaction surveys and steadily lost customers. The company also added online chat help, bolstered its automated phone technology and launched, a public forum for product reviews, rants and suggestions. The site includes periodic chats with company executives.

Where has all the help gone?       

Remember when customer service meant service provided for you? By someone else?

More and more, customer service means you get to serve yourself.

Technically, that makes it self-service. But in marketing parlance, self-service is actually a form of customer service, wherein the store — or the airline or the hotel — installs a cool gadget that lets you do the work once entrusted to others.

All this and no fear of rejection

U.S. consumers scanned $137 billion of merchandise at self-checkout lanes in 2006, a 24% jump over the previous year, according to research from IHL Group. Consumers spent an additional $300 billion at self-service kiosks, with the combined dollar volume expected to surpass $1 trillion by 2011.

The industry is growing at such a clip that it’s almost impossible to track the numbers, said Patrick Avery, the editor of SelfServiceWorld, launched in 2005 to meet the demand for information.

"The price is coming down," he said. "And nine times out of 10 those (self-service) units are going to pay for themselves in six months."

"Our markups are ridiculous."

It’s no secret that restaurants enjoy huge markups on certain items: Coffee, tea and sodas, for example, typically cost restaurants 15 to 20 cents per serving, and pasta, which costs pennies, can be dressed up with more expensive fare and sold for $25 a dish or more. At a fine-dining restaurant, the average cost of food is 38% to 42% of the menu price, says Kevin Moll, the CEO and president of National Food Service Advisors. In other words, most restaurants are making roughly 60% on anything they serve.

It’s not all gravy though. Restaurants keep only 4 cents of every dollar spent by a customer, says Hudson Riehle, the vice president of research and information services at the National Restaurant Association. The remainder of the money, he says, is divided among food and beverage purchases, payroll, occupancy and other overhead costs.

Given the slim profit margin, many restaurants rely on savvy pricing to create the illusion of value. Putting a chicken dish on the menu for $21 will make a $15 pasta dish, where the restaurant is making a big profit, seem like a bargain, says Gregg Rapp, the owner of consulting firm

Receipt Fun

Read Debbie Stanley’s wonderful "Organize Your Personal Finances in No Time" and cobbled together the following system from her suggestions.

Receipts now go in one of three compartments in my wallet. Receipts that I probably won’t need for long, such as those for routine purchases, get stuffed in with the bills; receipts that require action, such as a rebate, get put in the center section; tax-related receipts and those for big-ticket items go in the third compartment. Every week or so I clean out my wallet, taking action on the middle-compartment receipts and filing the tax-related ones.

The "short-term" receipts get put in a folder marked "This Month." At the end of the month, I move them into the folder marked "Last Month," while the receipts from that folder get moved to the "Two Months Ago" folder and the contents of THAT folder get dumped in the trash.

This system ensures I keep receipts long enough to check against my credit card statements, if I need to, and to make any returns. But I no longer have to spend valuable time sifting and sorting. Debbie, thank you.

  • Minute monitor. To see how many of your plan minutes you’ve used, dial *646# if your carrier is Cingular; *4 for Sprint; #646# for T-Mobile; #646 for Verizon.
  • Credit card hotline: To report lost or stolen credit cards, the following numbers come in handy: 800-VISA-911 for Visa cards (800-847-2911), 800-MC-ASSIST for MasterCard (800-622-7747), 800-992-3404 for American Express and 800-DISCOVER for Discover cards (800-347-2683).


Restaurant-association surveys indicate diners increasingly view restaurants as extensions of their own homes, and a large percentage would like to see table-top televisions installed at their favorite eating joints. In the next decade, more than half the average household food budget will be spent on meals bought outside the home, compared with 25% in 1955, the association reports.

Despite all the money Americans spend on eating out, restaurants’ profit margins are below 5%, the National Restaurant Association says. A dearth of new cooks and waiters has meant the end of many eateries. But cutthroat competition among restaurants has helped them produce good food at low prices, experts say.

"Restaurants aren’t winning on their sophistication of pricing — they’re winning on their ability to deliver value," said Mark Bergen, a pricing specialist at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota. "Simply put, restaurants are more efficient than you are."

Restaurant food costs went up more than 5% from the previous year in 2003 and 2004. Yet entrees stayed at much the same prices. Restaurants quietly raised prices for appetizers, alcohol and desserts. Bundling and hard-selling specials are other tactics that focus on high-margin items. The industry, too, is using automation techniques to keep costs low: Computers keep track of traffic and beep to tell managers when to send employees home.



Funai is looking to fill this gap with its latest announcement of a Blu-ray player slated to come in the second quarter of 2008 for less than $300—which is the lowest price we’ve seen on any Blu-ray player.

Other than the price, Funai didn’t release many other details about the new Blu-ray player, which it is referring to as the NB500 series. Like all other Blu-ray players released this year, it will be fully compliant with Blu-ray Profile 1.1, which means it can handle "picture-in-picture" video commentary tracks available on some new Blu-ray discs coming out in 2008. Like all other Blu-ray players, it will also be capable of upconverting standard DVDs to 1,080p over its HDMI 1.3 output. The NB500 series also includes an SD card slot, which Funai claims can be used to display digital video from a camcorder or digital camera.



The 100 Best Products of the Year

Edited by Mark Sullivan, PC World

1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 |  Next >

Jing Project (image/video production app, free)
Jing Project allows you to create little narrated movies (called "screencasts") of anything that’s happening on your PC desktop, and then share them with friends. Site

Audacity (audio editor, free)
This all-purpose, open-source multitrack recording application lets you record, play and edit digital files like a pro. Review | Download

Canon Vixia HF10 (high-definition camcorder, $1,100)
The tiny-but-mighty Canon Vixia HF10 records high-def video directly to an internal 16GB flash drive or a high-capacity SD card. Site | Check prices

Amazon MP3 (digital music site, $0.99 per song, most full albums $10)
Amazon’s MP3 shop rivals iTunes in the breadth of its music selections — and Amazon sells its files without the confining DRM wrapper. Site

RIM BlackBerry Curve 8300 Series (smart phone, $250 with two-year AT&T wireless contract)
Research in Motion’s Curve line delivers both a QWERTY keyboard and RIM’s increasingly popular smart-phone operating system — the best of its kind for handling corporate e-mail — in a compact and chic handset. Review (8300) | Review (8320) | Check prices (8300) | Check prices (8320)

Symantec Norton Internet Security 2008 (security suite, $60)
Symantec’s suite offers solid security protection. Features include strong behavior-based defense against unknown threats. Review | Check prices

Motorola MotoRokr T505 (car speakerphone, $140)
This Bluetooth gadget not only permits you to dial by voice and to chat hands-free while driving, it also streams music from your music phone to your car’s stereo system via its FM transmitter. Nice. Review | Check prices

Google Gmail (e-mail, free)
Google scores another coup by adding IMAP (Internet Message Access Protocol) support to its free e-mail service, enabling users to read Gmail messages on mobile devices and on other desktop mail clients. Site



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