Women’s apparel, dining drive U.S. holiday sales: MasterCard

(Reuters) – U.S. retail sales rose 5.5 percent from the day after Thanksgiving through Christmas Eve as solid demand for women’s apparel, jewelry and casual dining offset surprisingly sluggish sales of electronics, MasterCard said in its holiday spending report.

Russia forecasts economic slump as bailed-out bank gets more funds

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Slumping oil prices have put Russia’s economy on course for a sharp recession and double-digit inflation next year, government ministers said on Friday, as authorities scaled up a bailout for the first bank to succumb to this month’s ruble crisis.

Speak Up and Give Back if You Want the Economy to Improve

The holiday season is supposed to be a time of giving. We give presents, money and love. We give to show we care, and we give to share our good fortune. But giving isn’t what it used to be.

Years ago, the richest Americans gave a lot more of their income than they do now. Back then, the economy was healthier, the middle class was wealthier, and the nation was less divided. The American experience was a shared experience. Giving, after all, is sharing.

Today, the income gap is growing. It hasn’t been this high since the Great Crash of 1929. The wider it grows, the less the rich associate with the rest of us, and the less they feel the need or the desire to give back.

Recent work by the psychologist Paul K. Piff has shown that people become more narcissistic as they get richer. Contrary to the conventional wisdom that the poor and the middle class feel “entitled” nowadays, Piff finds that entitlement is higher among the rich.

But Piff has also discovered something that should give us hope. In one experiment, before he tested them for narcissism, he asked them to write down three benefits of treating other people as equals. Suddenly, their narcissistic tendencies disappeared. In the rest of the experiment, they stopped thinking of themselves and started thinking, well, like everyone else.

The economy is stuck in a rut right now. Most Americans’ inflation-adjusted income hasn’t increased since the onset of the Great Recession. But Piff’s research shows us that this trend doesn’t have to be permanent. We have the power to change it.

That’s what I tried to do in my book Letter to the One Percent. In it, I reached out to the richest one percent of American households. I asked them to do what they did in Piff’s experiment: to think of their fellow citizens as equals.

But the real world is not an experiment. Outside the lab, changing hearts and minds takes a little more convincing.

In another recent experiment, marketing professors Saerom Lee, Karen Winterich, and William Ross found that most people drew a sharp distinction between deserving and undeserving recipients of aid. They were far more likely to donate money, for example, if they were told that a person was poor because he could only find a low-wage job than if they were told that the poor person had a drug problem. They didn’t think of these people as equals.

Since publishing my book, I’ve heard people make this distinction often in response to my message to the One Percent. And so, over the past year, I’ve written posts for The Huffington Post showing that the rich aren’t rich because they work harder than the rest of us; that the poor don’t lie and cheat any more than the rest of us (and in fact the rich lie and cheat more); that you can’t simply get rich by choosing to get an education; that people can’t make more money by being poor or unemployed; and that much, if not most, of the difference between the rich and the poor can be explained by childhood experiences over which they had no control.

Some of us have made better decisions than others. Some have been given better opportunities than others. But the belief on which this nation was founded, “that all men [and women] are created equal,” rings as true today as it did in 1776.

No one is arguing for complete equality of income. Not even close. We celebrate the success of the One Percent, and rightly so. All we ask, especially in this time of giving, is for the compassion, the humility, the shared experience that existed only a few decades ago.

Your voice is more powerful than you might realize. The researchers James Andreoni and Justin M. Rao conducted an experiment where they showed that people tended to give away four times as much of their money if the recipient simply asked for it. If the recipient was silent, the giver only donated a tiny fraction.

The message is clear: Speak up. Vote. And if you can afford to, give back.


This op-ed was originally published in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

Court allows Aereo to auction TV streaming technology assets

(Reuters) – A bankruptcy court has allowed defunct video streaming company Aereo Inc to auction its TV streaming technology assets, according to court papers published on Friday.

Avoid Stupid PR Blunders in 2015

The year 2014 saw its share of PR blunders. From the fashion world, we had the bloody-looking Kent State sweat shirt from Urban Outfitters and the Zara tee with the gold star that looked like a concentration camp uniform. From Malaysian Airways, the airline that had one airplane disappear and another shot down, there was the “bucket list of places to go before you die” campaign. And from the world of frozen food, there was the DiGiorno’s Pizza fiasco when brand managers decided to play off a #whyIstayed Twitter hashtag. Amid all the responses to the NFL’s domestic violence scandals, the “#whyIstayed You had pizza” tweet caused the company some considerable public relations heartburn.

Are the people behind these PR blunders stupid? Probably not. But they are rushed, thoughtless and possibly clueless as well. We would like to assume that such insensitivity is unintentional, although heartless intent to gain attraction is always a remote (we hope) possibility. In all these cases, what appeared to be at the root was a lack of understanding of context, both historical and current.

The brand manager at Urban Outfitters, for example, could just have Googled “Kent State” to find the third result, a Wikipedia entry about the 1970 shootings and a profoundly painful chapter in American history. In the case of Malaysian Airways, the advertising and marketing folks were either tone deaf or asleep at the wheel. Anyone worth their salt in public relations would have counseled them to abandon this campaign. PR people at their best are plugging into to trends, public mood and opinion. They easily could have hollered, “Whoa!” And in the case of DiGiorno’s, if the tweeter had simply read how the hashtag was being used, he or she would have known that connecting it to pizza was in excruciatingly bad taste.

As you consider your communications efforts for 2015, here are a few pointers to set you on the road to thoughtful, instead of thoughtless commentary:

Look around. Take stock of the environment in which you find your posts, your products, or your cause. Take the pulse of others — even if it’s a virtual pulse found in the comments that preceded yours. And if you’re trying to start a fire on social media, look around first to try to predict whether it’s a fire that warms — or one that could burn the house down.

Wait a minute. Sure, seconds count in the blogosphere. But take enough of a pause to assess whether your comment contributes or confounds.

Think of what your mom (or your teacher) always said. Think about the other person’s feelings. Do look for ways to foster sensitively. And insert yourself into the conversation with the reader in mind.

Use your brain. You’re smart. That’s why you’re in PR, right? So when in doubt, opt for common sense and caution.

While some would say all publicity is good, I would counter, not so fast. Bad press over bad PR has a funny way of lingering and, like that ugly taste in the mouth, it can be hard to leave behind.

Please share stories you have of a PR blunder to avoid or about a company that successfully overcame a PR blunder.

Amazon’s Enormous Same-Day Delivery Growth Comes At A Price

Amazon hit a new record for its same-day deliveries this holiday season, with 10 times as many items shipped as last year, the company announced in a Friday press release.

With the company racking up all these speedy deliveries, it might be worth revisiting the woes of workers tasked with transporting items from the e-commerce giant’s warehouses to customers’ doors.

In April, The Huffington Post’s Dave Jamieson profiled Myron Ballard, a driver based out of Washington, D.C., for LaserShip, a shipping service hired by Amazon to meet its same-day delivery deadlines.

Technically hired as an “independent contractor,” Ballard received little support for the work he was doing. Delivering about 150 Amazon packages a day might have earned him, on average, $225.

But that money was spread thin covering his expenses.

Per Jamieson’s story:

Ballard had to purchase the cargo van he drives for work. He doesn’t get reimbursed for the wear and tear he puts on it; for the gasoline he pours into it on a near-daily basis; for the auto insurance he needs to carry; or for the parking tickets he inevitably racks up downtown. He doesn’t even get reimbursed for the LaserShip uniform he’s obliged to purchase and wear.

“It’s like they want us to be employees, but they don’t want to pay for it,” the 45-year-old Ballard said at the time.

Amazon has little incentive to change this system. Here’s why it works out so well for the retail company:

For starters, a delivery company using independent contractors avoids paying payroll or unemployment taxes on its drivers, as well as workers’ compensation insurance — never mind basic workplace benefits like health coverage and a 401(k). Such companies also aren’t obliged to pay workers overtime under federal law, meaning no time and a half when the delivery day stretches into a 12-hour shift. And since they pay drivers on a per-delivery basis, they don’t owe them anything for non-delivery work, like loading the van at the warehouse before hitting the road, a task that can take up to two hours.

Amazon did not respond to a request for comment on Friday.

Make no mistake, Amazon has reason to celebrate success right now. In October, the company faced its biggest quarterly loss in 14 years, leading some profit-hungry investors and pundits to dub CEO Jeff Bezos a “grinch.” Sales growth, especially during the retail industry’s coveted holiday season, is one way of proving Amazon is on the right track. But during a time of year when everyone, delivery drivers included, traditionally celebrates with family, it may be worth looking into the real costs of this same-day delivery service.

Belgium’s ‘Mr Europe’ dies at 92

Former Belgian Prime Minister Leo Tindemans, whose record support at the first European elections earned him the nickname “Mr Europe”, dies aged 92.

Shares rise in thin post-holiday trade; oil, natural gas slip

NEW YORK (Reuters) – U.S. stocks pushed higher on Friday, with the Dow and S&P 500 both closing at record highs, while oil and natural gas fell on worries of a supply glut and on mild U.S. weather.