Apple Wants a Lead Role in Streaming Music

Apples Show

SAN FRANCISCO — Apple’s iTunes helped change the way music-lovers bought their favorite songs, replacing plastic discs with digital downloads. Now the maker of iPods and iPhones wants to carve out a leading role in a revolution well under way, with a new, paid streaming-music service set to launch this summer.

With millions of listeners already tuning in to streaming outlets such as Pandora (P) and Spotify, analysts and music-industry sources say Apple has been gearing up to launch its own service, aimed at winning back some of those customers and nudging longtime iTunes users into a new mode of listening.

Apple (AAPL) is expected to announce the service at its annual conference for software developers, which kicks off Monday in San Francisco. In a keynote session, CEO Tim Cook and other executives are also expected to show off new features in Apple’s operating software for iPhones, iPads and Macintosh computers, as well as tools for building new apps for the Apple Watch. Analysts also expect enhancements to the mobile-payment service known as Apple Pay.

Streaming media is increasingly important to the computer-using experience, so it’s important for Apple to have a role there.

The world’s biggest tech company makes most of its money from selling handheld gadgets, like the popular iPhone, and other computer hardware. But Apple uses its annualWorldwide Developers Conference to highlight the software, online services and apps that make those devices indispensable to consumers around the world.

Along with a new music service, industry experts had been expecting Apple to announce a new streaming-video package and upgrades for its Apple TV service. But that may be delayed, according to reports by The New York Times and the tech blog Re/code, which said Apple is still negotiating with broadcasters and isn’t ready to announce the video service.

That puts the spotlight on Apple’s music initiative. Analysts say the company needs to build a robust streaming business if it wants to maintain its central role in the popular-music ecosystem. Most recordings today are still sold through digital stores like iTunes, which opened in 2003. But those sales have declined, while streaming services are rapidly gaining subscribers and revenue.

“Streaming media is increasingly important to the computer-using experience, so it’s important for Apple to have a role there,” said Creative Strategies analyst Ben Bajarin.

About 41 million people globally now pay for streaming music from Spotify, Deezer and other outlets, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, which says subscription revenue grew 39 percent last year to $1.6 billion. Overall download sales fell 8 percent to $3.6 billion.

Apple Inc. bought the Beats headphone maker and music streaming service for $3 billion last year, but publishers’ data confirmed by royalty tracking company Audiam shows Beats Music had just 303,000 U.S. subscribers as of December, compared to 4.7 million in the U.S. for market leader Spotify.

Ambitious Plan

While Apple wouldn’t comment last week, a person familiar with its plans said Apple has an ambitious goal to sign up 100 million subscribers for a new streaming service that will cost $10 a month and compete with other on-demand services such as Spotify and Rhapsody. Beats users will be migrated over before eventually closing down, and buyers of songs and albums on iTunes will also be presented with the option to purchase a subscription instead.

Along with a lengthy three-month free trial period for the paid service, the company also plans to bolster its free offering, iTunes Radio, with a live online radio station featuring DJs like former BBC host Zane Lowe and artists Pharell, Drake, Muse and David Guetta.

The person spoke on condition of anonymity because negotiations between the company and record labels were private.

“They are very late to the game on streaming,” said analyst Van Baker at the Gartner research firm. But he said Apple can still catch up by making it easy for iPhone owners to use the new service. That’s a huge pool of potential customers: Apple sold 61 million iPhones in the last quarter alone.

Aside from music, analysts expect Apple will tout improvements to other services like Apple Pay and Siri, the voice-activated digital assistant for iPhones and iPads. Apple has also hinted it will release programming tools for its new smartwatch.

Most apps available for the Apple Watch are extensions of apps that run on the iPhone. Independent app-builders like Jordan Edelson, CEO of Appetizer Mobile, are hoping Apple will release the code to build apps that interact directly with sensors and controls on the watch.

“That would let us build some really cool experiences,” added Edelson, who said it could make the watch more appealing to consumers who aren’t sure now if they need one.

Edelson also predicted Apple will introduce software that ties other products more closely together, such as apps that make the iPhone into a controller for television sets and other appliances.

That’s a smart strategy, said Forrester Research analyst Frank Gillett. “Once you start organizing your life around Apple products, you’re less likely to ditch your iPhone and go over to Android,” he said, referring to the competing technology from Apple’s rival, Google.

Week’s Winners and Losers: Apple Ticks On, Disney Ticks Off

Apple Watch Release
There were plenty of winners and losers this week, with the leading consumer tech company finally catching up to hot demand for a new product and a family entertainment behemoth coming under fire for replacing employees with cheaper foreign immigrants on work visas.

Apple (AAPL) — Winner

Production of Apple Watch devices is finally starting to catch up with demand. Apple announced that the popular smartwatch will be available for purchase in several new countries as well as at stateside Apple Store locations later this month.

There hasn’t been any in-store availability since April’s launch, but now Apple is saying that all of the orders placed through the end of May outside of a single watch model will be shipped within two weeks.

Apple didn’t have a perfect week. There was a recall for one of its Beats speakers on fire hazard concerns. That’s not fun, but the Apple Watch news is good enough to land the world’s most valuable consumer tech company in the winner’s circle.

Pier 1 Imports (PIR) — Loser

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The market isn’t a fan of peer pressure — or Pier pressure. Wedbush analyst Seth Basham downgraded shares of the home furnishings retailer to a ho-hum neutral rating, fearing the implications of the chain resorting to large storewide markdowns in recent weeks.

Pier 1 had said late last year that it wouldn’t resort to storewide sales, but here it is doing exactly that. Pier 1’s stock has been one of the market’s winners since bottoming out at 10 cents six years ago. It made the most of the spike in sales during the housing market’s rebound, but it’s been struggling lately.

Amazon.com (AMZN) — Winner

The country’s most reputable retailer — according to brand quality tracker Reputation Institute — just happens to be the largest online retailer. Amazon took top honors for the third year in a row.

Reputation Institute bases its annual list on tens of thousands of interviews, weighing consumer perception of brands. It does point out that reputation scores in general have been trending higher in recent years, making Amazon’s feat of coming out on top for the third consecutive time that much more impressive.

Disney (DIS) — Loser

The family entertainment giant isn’t always “the happiest place on Earth” for its employees. The New York Times ran a scathing article this week about Disney laying off 250 members of its IT team in Orlando, replacing them with cheaper foreign immigrants on temporary work visas.

This is a sliver of the 74,000 people that Disney does employ in Central Florida, but it still looks bad. Turning to these temporary H-1B visas for technology jobs is intended for foreigners with advanced tech skills that can’t be found closer to home. However, since these foreign jobs merely replaced existing hires — and the article points out that some of them were asked to train their replacements — this doesn’t seem to be in the spirit of the federal guidelines.

The layoffs actually happened in January, but The New York Times article is broadcasting the details this week. It’s not working wonders for Disney’s fairy tale reputation.

Ambarella (AMBA) — Winner

The company behind the video chips powering HERO wearable cameras and Dropcam security recorders posted blowout quarterly results this week. Ambarella has beaten Wall Street’s profit targets by a double-digit percentage margin every quarter since going public three years ago.

Analysts were generally impressed. Topeka Capital Markets boosted its price target to $105 from $75, and Needham upgraded its rating on the stock. Semiconductors can be a cutthroat business, but Ambarella’s differentiated solutions continue to gain traction.

Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz owns shares of Ambarella and Walt Disney. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Amazon.com, Ambarella, Apple and Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter servicesfree for 30 days. Looking for a winner for your portfolio? Check out The Motley Fool’s one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.

3 Steps to Get Your Financial Life on Track

Budget
As most everyone understands in theory, it is smart to be prepared for anything in life — whether it occurs personally, financially or professionally. The unexpected happens to people just like you and me every day.

But for many, good financial preparation, including establishing and maintaining solid financial habits or retirement readiness, isn’t as easy as it sounds.

According to the Voya Retire Ready Index, only 17 percent of workers have a formal written financial plan, while nearly half (48 percent) have less than $49,000 in retirement savings. The study, which focuses on the retirement readiness of workers and retirees, found that 27 percent of retirees and 59 percent of workers were extremely or very concerned about outliving their savings.

Given these concerning statistics, how should you become financially prepared? Here are three tips that can help get your planning and saving on track.

Establish (and write down) your financial goals. Planning involves setting short- and long-term goals. It also involves investigating different ways to reach those goals. You need to explore and be open to different options when planning to have the best outcome.

Ask yourself: What are my financial goals? Do you want to make a big purchase in the near future, such as an engagement ring, house or a child’s braces? For those closer to retirement, you may be thinking about a goal of retiring by age 65 with a certain amount of money saved.

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Most of us are on a quest to become financially independent, but many lack the planning know-how to get there. Writing down your goals is a great first step.

Prepare a budget. The best way to establish a budget is, quite simply, to start keeping track of your money. Track your income, expenses and savings for two to three months, and then analyze the numbers to see how you are doing. While a budget may be easy to establish in theory, it can be difficult in practice because execution requires dedication and can involve cutting back on spending.

There are plenty of tools that can help you, such as online home budget calculators. Find resources that work for you so you can accurately track where your money is going and determine where you can save more.

Don’t forget to aim to align your spending and saving with your long-term and short-term financial goals.

Understand your emotions and money. The path to financial preparedness isn’t easy, and there are many unexpected turns. Since you’ll experience ups and downs, it helps to better understand how you react to money issues.

Money is such an important part of our lives because it affects our relationships, career choices, education, family, retirement, charitable giving and much more. A lack of money can place us in vulnerable situations, which can lead toemotional, knee-jerk actions and make the situation worse.

It’s important to know what it takes to rattle our own emotional cage. It could be a sudden drop in the stock market, a large, unexpected bill, conflicting financial priorities or something else. Once you identify your emotional trigger spots, you can create a plan to steer yourself away from making bad decisions in crunch times.

Despite the financial world becoming more complicated, the way to financial independence still remains pretty straightforward and simple. Save, plan and get professional help when you need it.

Above all, to achieve your financial goals, choose the right path for you and stick to it. Being financially prepared doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a journey with many opportunities to revisit, adjust and then march forward to financial security.

Jacob Gold is a Voya Retirement Coach, a third-generation financial adviser and President of Jacob Gold & Associates Inc. He is the author of the upcoming book, “Money Mindset: Formulating a Wealth Strategy for the 21st Century” and “Financial Intelligence: Getting Back to Basics after an Economic Meltdown,” which was published in August 2009. Gold is a certified financial planner practitioner and is Series 7, 24 and 66 securities registered. You can connect with him on LinkedIn.

Securities and Investment advisory services offered through Voya Financial Advisors Inc. (member SIPC).

Jacob Gold & Associates Inc. is not a subsidiary of nor controlled by Voya Financial Advisors.

Why Your Local Bank Branch May Soon Disappear

bank branch entrance in urban...
NEW YORK — Bank branches are disappearing from the financial services landscape, but will they go away entirely?

With a 40 percent decline in U.S. bank branches since 1991 and a projected continuing decline of 25 percent by 2018, according to banking industry business intelligence firm FMSI, it’s a fair question to ask. In a wide-ranging study, FMSI says the drop-off in branches may prove to financial institutions that keeping bricks-and-mortar local banking centers running isn’t sustainable or cost efficient.

With transactions dropping and staffing levels remaining the same, the inevitable outcome is costly overstaffing in the branch environment.

“Our study reveals a declining branch transaction trend of which senior management at financial institutions should take note,” says W. Michael Scott, chief executive at FMSI. “With transactions dropping and staffing levels remaining the same, the inevitable outcome is costly overstaffing in the branch environment.”

Obviously, the rise of online and mobile banking has taken a toll on bank branches, but that’s not the only reasons for the decline. “We suspect this trend has to do more with the market correcting itself from an over-branched environment, as opposed to alternative channels replacing the branch,” the report says. “Regardless, online and mobile banking are on the rise, with no signs of letting up.”

FMSI analysts aren’t sold on the notion of branches drying up completely. Instead, they see banks morphing their branches eventually from deposit centers into sales centers. “The complete transformation of the typical branch to a more sales-centric operation will not happen in the near future,” FMSI reports. “Today, the significant majority of interactions in the branch are still simple deposits and withdrawals.”

“The reality is, no matter how simple the other channel technologies are, there will always be some that will never adopt it. If you continued the rate of decline as recorded by our study out another 20 years, you would still have an average [monthly] branch transaction volume of approximately 3,500.”

Banking customers seem to agree. “I still walk in to cash in checks for my business,” says Anthony Simola, CEO of Simola Technologies, a New York City technology consulting firm. “It’s convenient and quick.”

Others see bank branches moving toward a hybrid customer service location, as in the supermarket models of recent years.

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“Banking has gone the way of the self-service supermarket checkout through a combination of mobile and online portals, as well as more convenient ATM access, meaning less need for physical branches and less need for staff,” says Dan Blacharski, spokesman at MoneyLend.net. “In addition, the traditional bank loan officer has long been deprived of discretion in decision-making and has been reduced to serving as little more than an application-taker in a suit. Those looking for consumer loans are instead turning to online lending portals which offer more variety, access to a wider selection of lenders and lending products and even access to alternative lending vehicles like peer-to-peer options.”

While the number of bank branches in the United States has fallen in the past 15 years, and suggest a further decline, says Kartik Ramakrishnan, a senior vice president at Capgemini Financial Services, the trend suggests an “evolution,” not “elimination” of the branch model. “Despite the growth of low-cost Internet and mobile channels, branch usage hasn’t decreased, contrary to the expectations of the banks,” Ramakrishnan says, referring to customers relying on branches for more complex transactions and advice, adopting mobile for simpler interactions.

Most likely, bank branches will still be around, although you soon may not recognize one when you walk into the building.

“There is further evidence that banks are updating their branch experience and recognizing this trend,” Ramakrishnan says. “For example Vancouver-based North Shore has a spa-like experience in their branches, while Metro Bank refers to their branches as stores.”

Written by Brian O’Connell for MainStreet.

25 Companies That Are Revolutionizing Retail

Joplin Adli Reopening
The way people shop is changing every day. Thanks to the proliferation of smartphones and innovations in delivery and data, the retail landscape is evolving like never before. From an established e-commerce giant deploying drones to an inventive pizza chain, here are 25 companies that are revolutionizing the industry.

1. Zulily Applies T.J. Maxx Model to E-Commerce

Similar to discount retailer T.J. Maxx, Zulily (ZU), founded in Seattle in 2010, creates a daily treasure hunt for the mothers who shop its site. While T.J. Maxx offers close-out discounts on various brands in its stores, Zulily’s website offers flash sales on apparel, home goods, toys, and more. The deals and constantly changing selection keep shoppers coming back, and the e-commerce site, which went public in 2013, has nearly 4 million users.

2. Kroger Writes Playbook for Grocery Industry

Cincinatti-based Kroger (KR) has reported positive comparable-store sales for 45 straight quarters and is expected to surpass Whole Foods Market (WFM) within two years to become the nation’s top seller of organic and natural food. The chain, which dates back to 1883, is renowned for its excellent customer service and extensive selection. The retailer is a leader in offering private-label products to keep prices low and is known for its loyalty program, which makes customers eligible for discounts and fuel savings.

3. Brandy Melville Caters to Teens on Instagram

Fashion retailer Brandy Melville was founded in Italy more than two decades ago, and it brought its tiny crop tops, high-waisted bottoms, and slouchy sweaters to the U.S. just five years ago. Thanks to a brilliant Instagram account, which features a mix of professional models and real customers, the retailer is now ranked in the top 10 teen clothing brands, and has a major e-commerce presence. The brand is also notable for offering “one size fits all” clothing.

4. Bigcommerce Is the Brains Behind Online Stores

Bigcommerce is helping retailers adapt their businesses to an online format. Bigcommerce users rave about the company’s features, including better search engine optimization than other platforms — meaning that it’s more likely to get at the top of an online search. The Texas firm supports more than 70,000 retailers from 150 countries and has processed more than $5 billion in sales.

5. Starbucks Revolutionizes Mobile Payments, Delivery

Starbucks (SBUX) is responsible for making coffee shops ubiquitous. Now the Seattle icon is leading the charge on mobile payments at its 21,000 locations. The company’s mobile app allowed customers to pay for their coffee beverages by smartphone before Apple Pay. An impressive 16 percent of transactions are now mobile. The company is also testing delivery in Seattle and New York.

6. Poshmark Created a Reliable Resale Clothing Market

Poshmark uses an Instagram-like platform for users to sell used clothing. For a fee, users can easily upload pictures of their items. Unlike eBay (EBAY), which can be overwhelming with its broad array of products, the California firm is focused on clothing and accessories. Users can shop by brand or see what their friends are selling, giving a social aspect to the app. One DailyFinance contributor tested Threadflip and Tradesy, and another tried Twice and ThredUp.

7. Under Armour Challenges Athletic Brands

The Baltimore company, which put performance wear on the map, recentlysurpassed Adidas to become the second-biggest sportswear brand in the U.S. by sales. When it was founded in 1996, it had $17,000 in revenue. This year, it is expected to bring in $3.76 billion. Under Armour (UA) has been investing in high-profile endorsement deals with athletes like Stephen Curry and Muhammad Ali and building up its women’s business.

8. Pirch Creates New Home-Shopping Experience

San Diego-based Pirch is a high-end home store whose founders strive to make the experience of shopping “inspirational and joyful.” The retailer builds stunning, expansive showrooms. Baristas greet customers by offering them a custom latte. Shoppers can try out all of the products, including an aromatherapy shower and a heated toilet. Pirch is a pioneer in making its stores a destination when shoppers are increasingly going online.

9. Kohl’s Reinvents the Department Store

Kohl’s (KSS) is American women’s favorite place to shop for clothes, according to a recent survey. The department store chain, which traces its roots to Wisconsin in 1962, offers deep discounts on national clothing brands such as Nike (NKE), Vera Wang and Izod. Analysts say the thrill of finding good deals keeps bargain hunters coming back for a savvy mix of brands and value.

10. EDITD Shows Real-Time Purchases

EDITD is a technology company that helps retailers like Target (TGT), Gap (GPS) and Asos have “the right products, at the right place, at the right time.” The English company tracks what people are buying in real time. This helps retailers make better merchandising decisions and restock items faster.

11. Trader Joe’s Makes Brand Names Obsolete

Trader Joe’s sells twice as much a square foot as Whole Foods yet offers very few brand names. Consumers view the 57-year-old California firm as high-quality but inexpensive (many staple products are half the price of other retailers). The creativity of the in-house products is also important. Some of the most popular products include Chili-Lime Chicken Burgers, Cookie Butter (a cookie-flavored nut butter), corn and chili salsa.

12. Lululemon Defines Athleisure

Lululemon (LULU), which started in 1998 in British Columbia, was arguably the first company to offer women workout clothes they wanted to wear all the time. Now, analysts say the “athleisure” trend will likely become a permanent part of the retail landscape. The company now counts Nike and Under Armour among its copycats. Lululemon is continuing to innovate — its “anti ball-crushing” pantshave become hugely popular with men. It’s also expanding ivivva, its line for young girls.

13. Pet Food Express Leads in Conscious Capitalism

It’s easy to see why Pet Food Express, which has more than 50 stores in California, has a huge cult following. The 19-year-old company will undercut competitors’ prices by 10 percent and welcomes pets into its stores. It also pours profits into pet rescue and adoption, having donated more than $1.7 million in 2013 alone. Pet Food Express is known for offering workers excellent pay and benefits, and is routinely ranked as one of the best companies to work for.

14. Swipely Offers All-in-One Marketing, Payment Platform

Swipely is a platform that helps thousands of small retailers and restaurants attract and retain customers. The company, founded in 2009 in Rhode Island, tracks point-of-sale, sales, and customer data so retailers can see what’s working — services that were previously only available to larger companies. Swipely’s companies now post $4 billion in annual sales.

15. GameStop Prospers in Digital Transition

In the age of e-commerce, many people assumed that video game retailer GameStop (GME) — which dates back to 1984 — would go the route of book, music and video stores. But the Texas firm has been able to get customers in stores to purchase digital content. It’s cultivated retail locations as places where young men can socialize, meaning that online competitors haven’t made a dent in business. The company also has trade-in and loyalty programs that are unrivaled by competitors.

16. Stitch Fix Changes How Women Shop for Clothes

Stitch Fix eliminates the hardest part of shopping: making choices. With its services, women don’t have to step foot inside a store or browse shopping websites to find clothes they like. The San Francisco company’s stylists curate items for customers based on an extensive profile of their style preferences, sizing, and body types, and send them a box of selections every month. Customers can try on the clothes at home and send back whatever they don’t want to keep. Over time, the service gets increasingly accurate in predicting specific customers’ style preferences, thanks to an algorithm that learns from customer feedback.

17. Aldi Figures Out How to Be Cheaper Than Walmart

Aldi — a German firm that has been called the best grocery chain in the U.S.– offers cheaper prices than Walmart (WMT) by offering a lean selection of items that’s heavy on house brands. Aldi also saves money by requiring customers to bring their own shopping bags and bag their own groceries. The chain, which dates back to 1913, has nearly 1,300 US locations, mostly in the Midwest and East, and plans to open 650 more U.S. stores within the next five years.

18. Abine Protects Consumers With ‘Fake’ Credit Cards

The privacy firm Abine, founded in Boston in 2008, has developed a service called Blur that generates “fake” credit-card numbers to protect consumers from hackers. When a user is ready to make a purchase, Blur will randomly generate a masked card — a one-time-use credit card number, expiration date and security code. The card is only authorized for a specified amount and after a single use, it will be destroyed. That way, no customer information can be stolen.

19. Interior Define Makes Customizable Furniture Affordable

Interior Define, founded in 2014 in Chicago, builds every piece of furniture on demand and will customize everything, including size, shape, color, fabric, filling, and frame. With an average price point of about $1,700, Interior Define is targeting customers who have graduated from Ikea furniture but can’t afford designer brands.

20. Amazon Pioneers in the On-Demand Economy

Since its 1994 founding, Amazon.com (AMZN) has continued to innovate This year, the company started offering one-hour delivery for members of its Prime service and expanded its grocery delivery business to New York City. The company also announced a new gadget called the Dash Button, which will make it easier for consumers to order household items, such as detergent, when they are running low.

21. CVS Stops Selling Cigarettes

CVS (CVS) shocked the retail industry last year when it made the decision to stop selling cigarettes and other tobacco products at its stores, saying tobacco has “no place in an environment where healthcare is being delivered.” The decision was expected to cost the 52-year-old Rhode Island company about $2 billion in annual revenue, but the pharmacy chain made up some lost revenue by charging a new premium to Caremark customers who fill prescriptions at pharmacies that sell tobacco products. The change gives Caremark customers a major incentive to fill their drug orders at CVS.

22. Restoration Hardware Opens Design Galleries

At a time when many retailers are shutting down physical stores or downsizing existing ones, Restoration Hardware (RHI), which was founded in 1980, is opening even bigger stores — and sales are booming. The California company has been opening massive “design galleries,” which are larger than its typical stores, and have a much wider selection of products. Restoration Hardware’s same-store sales soared 20 percent in 2014.

23. T.J. Maxx Redefines Discount

T.J. Maxx-parent TJX Cos. (TJX) has been called the most powerful apparel retailer in the U.S. The Massachusetts company, which also owns the discount retailers Marshalls and Home Goods, frequently floods its stores with new merchandise but limits the amount of each product it sells to keep bargain hunters coming back again and again. The company, founded in 1976, alsoaggressively trains its buyers to keep costs low.

24. Wanelo Make It Really One-Click Easy

Wanelo, founded in 2011 in San Francisco, is a popular online shopping community where users find and share images of cool products. Unlike Pinterest, clicking on a product’s image on Wanelo will take users right to the website where they can purchase it. From August 2013 to August 2014, Wanelo grewfrom 1 million members to 11 million.

25. Adore Me Brings New Strategies to Lingerie

Adore Me, founded in 2011 in New York, has applied the strategies of fast-fashion retailers like Zara and Forever 21 to the lingerie business. Adore Me bras and panties run about $39 total, while a single bra at Victoria’s Secret costs between $50 and $60. The brand sells plus sizes, while Victoria’s Secret is criticized for its limited selections.

 

10 Fun, Creative Uses for Your Airline Miles

 

hot air balloons over the gorge ...

Most of us have a few ways of racking airline miles up, either through credit cards, loyalty clubs or frequent flyer programs. Depending on which way you earn your miles, they can be worth several cents a mile, with a penny a mile being the average.

What do you do with all those miles once you’ve collected a bunch — but aren’t flying anywhere? After all, 100,000 miles is a cool $1,000, and can be acquired quickly with a double miles card and some business and personal trips.

1. Do Something Thrilling

How do you fancy doing a tandem skydive? What about doing three laps in a stock car or Indy race? Maybe a hot air balloon ride, fighter pilot experience or scuba diving is your thing. Airline miles can now be turned into memories you will never forget. Some run as little as 10,000 miles, and others top 650,000 miles. It all depends on how much of your breath you want taken away.

2. Turn Them Into Magazines, Newspapers

If you really want to stretch your airline miles, why not turn a few thousand in for some subscriptions to big magazines and newspapers? The price is so cheap, it’s almost free. Many annual magazine subscriptions are under 2,000 miles, or $20. When you consider the average price at the newsstand is $4-$5, that’s a steal. Newspapers also take part, and you can use local papers. Simply enter your AIP code, and you’ll get airline mile quotes for your local papers, usually for 13 weeks and above.

3. Donate to Charity

If you’re feeling philanthropic, airline rewards can easily be donated to charities. Just enter your ZIP code and the area of interest you’d like to help out with. The miles will be turned into cash donations, and of course, they are tax-deductible.

4. Get the Latest in Entertainment

Whether it’s the latest albums, songs, eBooks, audiobooks, movies or TV series, you can easily exchange the miles you have accrued for hours and hours of great entertainment. Just check out the offers page of your airline miles website.

5. Bid in Auctions

Most airline miles reward sites have an auctions section now. For instance, United is accepting mileage bids on VIP experiences with sports stars. Of course, if you don’t win, you don’t lose the miles, so you can bid again on something else.

6. Upgrade Your Flight

It can cost many thousands of dollars to buy a first class ticket to Europe. But when you use your miles, it’s nowhere near as expensive. For instance, take a quick look at this chart. A typical upgrade to business class, from economy, is coming in at around 50,000 miles. You can take your long haul flight from a sardine can experience, to something much more pleasurable indeed. American Airlines charges just 25,000 miles to go from a full fare ticket to a business seat.

7. Get a Better Hotel Room

Most miles you accrue can be transferred to hotel loyalty programs, be it Starwood Preferred Guest, Hilton HHonors or Marriott Rewards. So, next time you check in, see if you can use some of your miles to get a much better room. It can cost as little as 6,000 miles to go from a standard room to a fancy suite.

8. Take a Cruise

You can redeem your airline miles for tickets to cruise lines, including Norwegian, Royal, Celebrity, Carnival and Princess. How about four nights in the Bahamas for under 25,000 miles? In fact, the average cost of a night on board a cruise ship is between 9,000 and 10,000 points. That’s cheaper than a mediocre hotel room in the Midwest.

9. Pay Off Your Credit Card

Some credit cards have programs that can give you cash credits to your statement or even cold hard cash. With the former, you make travel related purchases with your credit card, and then use your miles to put that money back on the card at a later date. It’s basically like using your miles to go shopping without worrying about using points to redeem flights or stays.

10. Get Cool Merchandise

What kind of cool stuff? Well, what do you want? Airline miles can be turned into great purchases, with categories including apparel, accessories, automotive, tools, baby gear, electronics, gadgets, home and garden, sports, outdoors, toys and collectibles. I recently used rewards to get a fantastic hybrid coffee maker that uses both pods and regular filters. It’s also great fun to browse. Of course, make sure you’re not paying over the manufacturer’s suggested retail price for anything.

Now, have you done something cool with your airline miles that isn’t on this list? Let us know.

Is Amazon Handmade the Death Knell for Etsy?

APTOPIX Etsy IPO
Etsy executives celebrate the company’s IPO with employees and guests last month at the Nasdaq MarketSite.

There’s a new arts and crafts marketplace hitting cyberspace, and the company behind it is going to attract plenty of attention. The Wall Street Journal reportsthat Amazon.com (AMZN) has been actively reaching out to the artisans who make Etsy (ETSY) their home, surveying their interest in a new platform that the e-commerce behemoth is readying to roll out called Amazon Handmade.

Etsy has carved out a cozy corner of cyberspace where the makers of handcrafted items and sellers of vintage items gather to reach an audience. Etsy has been able to stand out successfully in the otherwise cutthroat climate of e-tail. There were 1.4 million active sellers on Etsy last year, and their goods were snapped up by 19.8 million active buyers.

Will Amazon’s presence in this niche be disruptive to Etsy? Will it expand consumer appetite for homemade wares? We still don’t have all of the answers, but Etsy vendors and shoppers alike will want to pay attention to what Jeff Bezos’ dot-com darling does in this space in the coming months.

Building a Better Etsy

Amazon’s survey didn’t provide any insight into what its pricing strategy will be. Etsy currently offers very competitive rates to indie artisans trying to grow their own cottage industries. Etsy charges just 20 cents to list an item on its site for four months. It then charges just 3.5 percent of the subsequent sale.

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Amazon itself takes a different tack. It’s been an open platform for third-party sellers since 2000, offering vendors big and small access to its growing audience. Amazon doesn’t charge any listing fees for individuals looking to sell no more than 40 items a month through the site, but it does charge them 99 cents for each sale, and then we get into variable costs that typically consume another 6 percent to 15 percent of the ultimate sale, depending on the product category.

Amazon Handmade could have its hands full if it prices itself out of Etsy’s vendor base, but there’s also something to be said about the new platform providing incremental sales. If the fees are fair, there’s no reason a talented artisan can’t sell through both digital storefronts. Amazon would expand a craftsman’s client base, and there isn’t anything wrong with that.

Etsy’s Rookie Mistake

Things have been rough for Etsy since it went public in April at $16 and nearly doubled to close at $30 on its first day of trading. Concerns surfaced about vendors selling counterfeit goods on the site, and then it posted a widening loss in its first quarter as a public company in May.

The stock has gone on to give back nearly all of its opening-day gains. That’s more pain for its shareholders than for the folks buying and selling on Etsy, though one has to wonder if the site will be able to keep its selling commissions so cheap if it continues to post quarterly deficits.

Now we have the Amazon challenge, which at the very least will draw attention away from Etsy as the marketplace of choice for handmade goods. If Amazon promotes Amazon Handmade with the same kind of home-page marketing push that it has used to promote Kindle products in the past, it’s going to draw a crowd. That’s great news for potential sellers on the new site, but it may not be such good news for Etsy itself.

Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Amazon.com. The Motley Fool owns shares of Amazon.com and Etsy. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days, and check out our free report for one great stock to buy for this year and beyond.

Amazon to Offer Free Same-Day Delivery for Prime Members

maryland  usa   june 3  2014 ...
CHICAGO — Amazon.com (AMZN) said Thursday it will offer limited free same-day delivery under its Prime shipping service as retailers try to outdo each other on delivery deals, and expanded the service to San Diego and the Tampa Bay Area.

Amazon offers same-day delivery to Prime members for $5.99 a order and non-members for $8.99, plus 99 cents a unit. The online retailer will allow Prime members free same-day shipping on orders over $35, Greg Greeley, head of Prime, told Reuters.

We know same-day delivery volumes will grow dramatically now that we are making it free.

“We know same-day delivery volumes will grow dramatically now that we are making it free,” he said.

Amazon’s announcement comes within days of rival Walmart Stores (WMT) saying it plans to test a new unlimited online shipping service this summer for $50 a year, a move that may hurt Amazon, which has an annual $99 Prime shipping service.

Google (GOOG) also recently launched its Express shopping option that allows retailers that do not have same-day delivery capabilities, to use its network in certain markets. Google Express costs $10 a month, or $95 a year.

Amazon launched Prime a decade ago offering free, two-day shipping — at first charging $79, then raising the service to $99 last year. In 2009 Prime launched same-day delivery and last year started a one-hour delivery service, Prime Now.

Prime has become the cornerstone of Amazon’s growth — and a testing ground for new services ranging from television programs and movies to delivery-by-drone.

In 2014, Amazon spent billions of dollars on Prime shipping and has invested $1.3 billion in its Prime video service.

Earlier this year Amazon said U.S. Prime membership increased 50 percent in 2014. In December, it said customers ordered more than 10 times as many items via same-day delivery this holiday season, compared to a year earlier.

The same-day delivery service is already available in cities such as New York, Philadelphia, the San Francisco Bay area, Seattle, Atlanta, Boston and Baltimore, among others.

A recent study of 1,400 online shoppers by Walker Sands Communications found that free shipping was the feature most likely to get people to shop online, followed by free returns and one-day shipping. The study also found nearly 96 percent of respondents had made a purchase from Amazon in the past year.

Is Your Rental Car Company Spying on You and Your Driving?

BCATY5 Blurred view of a car speeding down a country road

 

Rental car giant Hertz has admitted it has cameras installed in about 1 in 8 of its cars in the United States. But those cameras — built into Hertz’s NeverLost dashboard assistant that offers routing help and local city guides — have never been turned on, Hertz has said, loudly and repeatedly. NeverLost 6 was launched by Hertz in early 2014 and only now is it causing a flap, probably because more renters began noticing a creepy camera pointed at them.

There are excellent reasons to worry about car rental companies spying on drivers but, very probably, NeverLost 6 is not one of them. Hertz had said it lacked the bandwidth to use the cameras anyway but it has been scorched so severely in the media flap of the past weeks that industry experts indicated that Hertz now would be just about the last company to spy on customers. But many others do.

History Isn’t On Your Side

Fact: most rental cars are equipped with navigation and GPS systems. Are they used against drivers? Well, yes and no. The yes part is that, starting around a dozen years ago, media outlets were filled with sad stories of rental car customers “fined” hundreds — sometimes thousands — of dollars for violating the terms of their contracts. How? In one celebrated case, Acme Rent-a-Car of New Haven, Connecticut, fined a customer $450 ($150 per incident) for exceeding posted speed limits. The customer had not received traffic citations. And the customer sued. The judge ruled against Acme. He did not dispute the right to track. But he said there was insufficient “notification” to make the fines justified.

In another famous case, a Payless customer expected a bill for $259.51. He was instead slapped with a bill for $3,405.05, which was reached by adding a $1 per mile to each of the 2,874 miles he had driven, because he had crossed the California state line into Nevada and later drove into Arizona. That triggered the fines, because the contract prohibited leaving the state.

In many more cases, numerous Florida car rental companies are notorious for literally shutting off engines of cars that cross state lines. The cars may be restarted upon agreement to pay new fees.

Is this legal? Neil Abrams, a car rental consultant in Purchase, New York, said, “It is legal as long as it disclosed.” As the Acme case illustrated, however, disclosure has to be loud and in a renter’s face. Fine print footnotes may not be good enough for many courts.

What the Big Firms Say

What’s more, Abrams said that from his seat, use of tracking was much more prevalent a few years ago, perhaps because companies were exploring the limits of new technologies. “It’s much less frequent now.” As customer anger grew — and negative stories multiplied — the big, national companies cut way back on use of tracking tools.

Case in point: Enterprise Rent-a-Car, in response to a reporter’s question, issued a flat denial: “We do not install cameras in our vehicles. Enterprise Rent-a-Car, National Car Rental and Alamo Rent a Car passenger vehicles come equipped with only standard technology, as provided by automobile manufacturers. For example, some of our GM vehicles are equipped with OnStar technology -– however, we can’t access the technology without an official police report (to document that a vehicle is lost or missing).”

Other big players have similar policies. But driver tracking still happens at small, independent companies, Abrams said.

From Smaller Firms and on the Border

A primary reason: those companies, said industry experts, are very concerned about stolen cars, and, honestly, it is not that hard to walk up to a car rental counter, present a decent counterfeit driver’s license and a stolen credit card and drive off in a $30,000 Toyota Camry that can be sold for cash at the nearest chop shop. Rental companies in Arizona, Texas, New Mexico and California have the added problem of the Mexican border.

Small companies also are very concerned about vehicle abuse — hard driving off-road, for instance, or significant speeding. Built-in monitoring technology gives them an early warning that bad things are happening to their asset and they may be able to cut their losses.

The upshot: many companies use tracking devices that are programmed to send alerts only upon occurrence of particular trigger events such as crossing a state line or an international border, said experts. The technology, insisted Abrams, “is not used to track where people go,” which is to say, it involves no obvious privacy concerns. “It’s there to keep people from going where they shouldn’t.”

But that’s at the national chains. At the mom and pop independents, apparently anything goes. Renter beware. Word of advice: when renting at an independent, always ask at the counter how and what they track. Pay close attention. Those few seconds can spare you big agony later.