OK, it’s only 58 cents. But it’s the principle of the thing. Isn’t it always? We go to Burger King because the kids eat their chicken nuggets. The dollar menu sells them four pieces for $1. At most stores, an eight-piece order used to cost more than double that, so my wife got me in the habit of ordering two four-pieces instead of one eight-piece. Finally, most of the stores saw how silly this was repriced their eight-piece nuggets to $1.99, a one-cent saving over the dollar menu. Fine. Thanks. So today, we went to another Burger King and I just ordered two eight-pieces without looking. Turns out, they don’t post the price of the eight-piece and they charge $2.29 for them. So I got two eight-pieces and got 16 pieces of fried chickenesque things for $4.58. If I had ordered four four-pieces, I would have gotten the same 16 fried chickenesque things for $4. I went to the managers lolling behind the counter with no business. One just shrugged at me, which is lazy-manager speak for ‘f you, customer.’ The other said he couldn’t refund the 58 cents because then he wouldn’t come out even at the end of the day, as if that never happens. I told him that was the most expensive 58-cent profit he’d ever make. I went to the Burger King site to try to complain. They don’t take email. So I’ll complain about Burger King story #1503 right here. Beware the Burger King chicken ripoff.
Posts about consumerism
The Times has a delightfully devastating story about upheaval in the real estate broker business asking whether we are seeing the last stand of the 6 percenters. We can only hope.
The Times story focuses on Redfin, a new brokerage in California and Washington only, unfortunately, that will list sellers’ homes for $2,000 flat and will rebate two thirds of its commission (thus usually 2 percent of the selling price) to buyers. Redfin does all this — how else? — by taking advantage of the internet and of the monopolistic pricing of multiple listing service members.
The Times reports that some sellers’ agents refuse to show homes to people coming from Redfin. I’d call that anticompetitive and perhaps even antitrust behavior. Watch and I’ll bet that MLSes will get opened up and then, once any of us can list and find homes on our own, the whole game is over. Bye-bye overpriced agents.
I will guarantee you that as soon as this post goes up, whining real estate brokers will come in — as they do every week here, here, and here — and mewl about how they provide such loving service and get you better deals. Bull. The Times cites Freakonomics:
“It’s a case where nobody wins,” Chang-Tai Hsieh, an associate professor of economics at the University of California, Berkeley, said of the current system. Mr. Hsieh, who has studied real estate commissions, said that they did not vary much from 6 percent and did not generally change in good times or bad. He said it was a form of price fixing, but an odd one. “Consumers pay a lot of money, and even the people who do the price fixing don’t win,” he said. “So it is a colossal waste.”
Traditional agents spend very little time brokering a deal, Mr. Hsieh added. Most of their time is consumed looking for new clients, which is of no benefit to consumers. An agent working for a salary, he said, would be freed of the need to prospect and would thus be more inclined to focus on negotiating.
Others agree. Steven D. Levitt, an economics professor at the University of Chicago, found that commissions did not align the interests of agents with those of their customers, a conclusion he recounted in his book “Freakonomics.” The agent has little incentive to get a few thousand dollars more for a homeowner, he wrote, because it will not much improve the commission. It is far more important for an agent working on commission to get the deal done and move on, he added.
The story points out that apart from a few star sellers, the agents themselves don’t get rich, either. Wake up, agents, your days are numbered. You might want to consider a management career at — dare I say it? — Burger King.
The co-founder of Pret a Manger got fed up with hotel rip-offs and so he started his own and I can’t wait to stay there: nice rooms, free wifi, free room-service breakfast, cheap phones. This is what the hotel business needs: competition. The Guardian tells the story.
Companies don’t realize that starting a community is a commitment. You can’t get people to move in and hand over their time and attention and then just one day decide to close.
Mattel is shutting down its American Girl Club and our daughter is rightfully upset. She joined the community and made friends there and now Mattel is pulling up and leaving town. Because of the anonymity features of the community, this means that thousands of friendships are suddenly cut off; they communicate only through the club. It’s like putting up a Berlin Wall around third grades the world around. That’s the worst of it. Mattel also took parents’ money to set up this club. They are offering prorated refunds or issues of their magazines. But in the land of communities, that’s like taking away homes and mortgages, for it’s not the company’s community but the members’ community. This is a case of online eminent domain. Of course, business happens; obviously, it wasn’t paying to keep the club open. But I’ll bet that Mattel — like other companies — didn’t know the obligation it took on when it started this community and the damage it does to its brand shutting it down.
Toy companies should not be in the business of making children sad.
: LATER: Rex Hammock goes meta on Mattel.
Bono just posted on Comment is Free promoting his buy-red initiative as a way to squeeze virtue out of commerce:
I’m not sorry for poor Africans but I am sorry for the British and Irish public who have had to suffer the most recent outbreak of Bonoitis of which there seems to be no known cure though I hear Guardian readers are working on a vaccine …
In defence: There are some really exciting things happening on the ground in Africa and back home that are worth making a song and dance about.
To help us with the HIV/Aids emergency we have come up with the concept of Red products. Why Red? Because Red is the colour for an emergency. And 6,500 people dying in Africa every day of a preventable and treatable disease is an emergency.
Red is where desire meets virtue, where consumerism meets philanthropy, where shopping attempts to meet the need of a continent in crisis, where once HIV/Aids meant a death sentence but where two pills a day can now have you back at work in 40 days.
Really the deal is this. These brands are prepared to share their profits with the Global Fund to Fight Aids in the hope that the association with Red will bring them to new and more loyal customers. [snip]
Big business is not bad. Big bad business is bad. It is strange that it took the continent of Africa to turn an activist onto commerce, but that’s what Africans want now – to do business with us, to trade, to have dignity of labour. Of that, more later … until you find the vaccine.
I promised some curious folks a report card on my trip on Eos, the new, all-first-class airline that flies between New York and London at much less than British Air or Virgin Upper Class. At $2950 for the lowest roundtrip (30-day advance, Saturday stay), it’s not a bargain, but it looks like one next to the $13,000 it costs to fly first class on BA. I was lucky enough to go over on an expense account and given that same privilege, I’d take Eos again in a flash.
Here’s the best analysis: My biggest — my only real — complaint on the way over was the pillow. It was some Nazipedic nightmare — you vill sleep zhis vay — and I felt quite churlish whining about it, but I did say in the comment card that I wanted a softer pillow. On the flight back, I gave the pillow a squeeze and it was like a cloud. The stewardess heard my reaction and said that oh, yes, they’d listened to customers’ suggestions and were replacing the pillows. Now that’s the ticket.
The most important thing about the airline is its seat, which reclines to a fully flat bed with plenty of room to stretch out, work, eat, talk. Just as important, it comes with a 120-volt laptop plug. Heaven. They give you a wireless entertainment unit that shows movies and TV shows. It could have a better screen and better choices but, again, I don’t want to be churlish. On the way over, I slept anyway. And on the way back, I watched Sleeper Cell on my Mac, via iTunes. Having been lucky enough to take the sleeper seats on BA’s and Lufthansa’s first classes over the years, I’d say that Eos’ is every bit as good.
Flying out of JFK (an inconvenience for a Jersey guy), you go to the Emirates first-class lounge and my advice is that you eat dinner there. The food is good and interesting and this way, you can sleep on board as soon as you take off at 7p (otherwise, you’ll be dining at 9). I got a good five or six hours of sleep on the way over and woke up civilized. The plane comes into Stansted and it was easy to get into London on an express train.
On the way back, the Stansted lounge is a bit more spartan, but still pleasant, and all you need is peanuts and booze, for there are big meals on the plane. I was on the flight with some colleagues and we happened to end up talking with the company’s marketing veep. I begged him for wifi, but he said it takes millions to refit a plane for that. Damn. We asked who their target customer is and he said it’s investment bankers but that they are getting celebs, too, including a famous basketball player who, indeed, could lay out and sleep.
We left Stansted at 6p, landed 34 minutes early at JFK at 8:40p and I was home at 10:30. Today, I feel normal. And the schedule meant that I got two full days working in London on either end of the trip. It’s good business.
A friend who took the airline said more than once that it’s better than taking a corporate jet. I agree, for the few times I ever took corporate jets I had to work the whole time and be nice to bosses. Here, you’re the boss.
And, no, I have nothing to disclose; I paid the regular fare.
Burnham’s Beat has a great post about the walled gardens that are most under siege in an open, searchable, post-scarcity, edge-controlled world. They’re all the classified categories — real estate, jobs, stuff-for-sale, personals — that technology took away from newspapers. I’ve long contended that this was only a temporary move: expensive, monopolistic, and inefficient marketplaces (newspapers) were replaced by cheaper, more efficient marketplaces (Monster.com, eBay, et al). But they’re still centralized marketplaces in a decentralized world. Search, Google Base, microformats, structured blogging, and so on will slay the monsters that slayed newspapers’ businesses.
: The one category that has been less open than the others is real estate: the most irksome, closed, anticompetitive, quasimonoplistic, overpriced service out there. What they do is simply not worth 6 percent. But because brokers control access to the multiple listing pool, you’re pretty much screwed without them.
When I started working on the internet a dozen years ago, I predicted that would be one of the first walls to fall. I was wrong. But I think it’s teetering under constant barage from community (see: CraigsList), would-be competitors, technology (see, again: Google Base and microformats.org), and customers eager to be set free.
The New York Times writes today about banks trying to fight the huge lobbying power of Realtors to offer competition. Factoids:
The association’s power has swelled during the heady days of the real estate boom. Its ranks have grown by more than 500,000 in the last five years. With almost 1.3 million members, it is the largest trade association in the country. One out of every 203 adults is a dues-paying member, according to August statistics from the association and the United States Census.
The boom has enriched many brokers. With the average cost of a home reaching historic highs, consumers paid roughly $61 billion in brokerage fees for residential real estate in 2004 as some 6.8 million homes changed hands. Last year, the industry was on track to sell almost 7.1 million homes, according to estimates in December.
I have no idea what percentage of real estate sales people belong and so this calculation is suspect, but if you divide those numbers and then give the brokerage half of the take, it works out to $23,400 per. After the boom and the invasion of all the new market factors above, that is bound to shrink.
I’ll be that you’re going to see a lot of former Realtors as competition and openness encroach on their turf.