mad anthony

Rants, politics, and thoughts on politics, technology, life,
and stuff from a generally politically conservative Baltimoron.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Black Friday Blues...

Blogging about Black Friday makes me feel old, because I start reminiscing about back in the day, when there were plenty of good deals to be found, and media hype and lines were short, and we had to walk uphill in the snow both ways to school.

But it's the truth - well, except for the uphill both ways thing. I think the first year I did any kind of Black Friday shopping was 2000. A family member wanted, of all things, a paper shredder, and Staples had one on sale until noon. I rolled up there around 11am in my '87 LeBaron sitting on chromed-plastic 14's, and they still had them in stock. By the next year, I had discovered eBay, and that people on it would pay good money for things that stores often had for free after mail in rebate. i got to the store that had the earliest opening - I think it was Circuit City - soon before they opened, and got a ton of FAR stuff - and repeated the same at several other stores.

I kept this up for several years - I'd be able to go to several stores, pick up a bunch of stuff, and still get back in time to have breakfast with my parents. The last year I did this was probably 2006. Circuit City had a laptop I wanted at some stupidly low price, plus a bunch of FAR stuff with it, and I got there at midnight. And was still too late.

So I switched to online, and I did pretty well the last few years. This year, I got a handful of small items, but not as much as I had in previous years. I did buy a 32" LCD TV - a $196 Haier from Newegg - which will go in my basement in front of my treadmill, replacing a 16" which i'll sell. $196 is a great deal for a TV, considering they were about twice that a year or two ago, but $199 flat panels have been available pretty widely at Amazon and other places. I did miss a couple good but short lived deals thanks to being asleep, but for the most part there just aren't that many out there anymore, online or in stores.

What's funny is that when there were awesome deals, there was very little hype, but now you've got stores opening at midnight and customers using pepper spray on fellow customers at Wal-Mart like they were some kind of OWS protesters. And yet those people are skipping sleep and committing felonies to get stuff at prices that aren't all that great, and are often available online.

So why has black Friday gotten so black? On the B&M (brick and mortar, ie "real") side, I think part of it is that retailers have gotten smart - they've realized that giving stuff away to people who will do anything to save a buck isn't making them money, it's costing them money. The mail-in rebate, which was the means that many of my deals from yesteryear came from, have gotten much more rare - a combination of shady and incompetent rebate processors and manufacturers and customers who were too lazy to read the fine print and follow the rules. And many of the B&M stores that used to be Black Friday destinations are gone - like Circuit CIty, CompUSA, and (at least where i spend Thanksgiving) OfficeMax.

On the online side, there are a number of reasons things have cooled - companies have realized that losing money or selling at cost isn't going to make them a profit, and that most online customers are price-sensitive and won't turn into loyal customers. Fewer rebates, for the same reasons as above. And, just like at brick and mortar stores, there is a lot more media hype about the deals online, so there are more people chasing fewer items.

One of the big developments this year has been stores opening earlier - some at midnight - and people who feel it's the end of the world and unfair to employees. While I understand that it probably isn't fun for some employees and their families, there are a lot of jobs, from restaurants to hospitals to radio stations - whose employees routinely have to work on holidays, and families typically find ways to work around it. And I suspect some employees don't mind the extra hours and extra money. But the funny thing is that this isn't anything new - for years before their bankruptcy, I remember CompUSA having "midnight madness" sales. And no, I never went to one.

i suspect Black Friday will never be what it was a decade or so ago. I wonder, though, if at some point there will be a backlash - if the combination of mediocre deals, idiot customers, and media hype will persuade people to stop going.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Support your local giant multinational business...

The defending of small business and the complaints about large multi-international corporations is nothing new, especially in terms of retail. It's gotten even more attention of late, with promotions like Amex's Small Business Saturday, "localvoire" food movements, and people in general claiming that supporting small businesses will help the economy.

So should you feel guilty the next time you shop at Wal-Mart or Target instead of Mom and Pops? I don't think so. I have to admit, the idea of shopping at a small business is appealing - of getting better products, at lower prices, from people passionate about what they sell. And there are a few local business I patronize - the scratch bakery I often hit up for donuts after yard sales, the local gas station near work where I sometimes get my oil changed, the little Asian tailor who hems my pants to fit my nearly midget-sized frame. But most of my shopping is done at Target, or at Weis, a regional multi-state grocery store, or online.

Why? Partly because chain stores often win on price and selection. But even more so, they usually win on convenience - the big box stores are nearby, they are open nearly all the time, and they have plenty of parking.

One of the reasons people often advocate small businesses is that they keep money in the community - but I don't think it's that simple. If a business is a retailer, chances are a huge chunk of it's cost is for inventory, and if they buying from the same manufacturers as the chain stores, the money is going to the same place - probably China. Many chains, especially restaurants, are often franchised, which means the owner often is a local and a small businessperson themselves. And lots of chains are publicly held, which means much of those profits are going to stockholders in the form of dividends and increased stock prices - stockholders who probably live in the community and either own shares or have 401k's or similar investment vehicles that are invested in those chains.

I recently finished an interesting book, The Great A&P and the struggle for small business in America. The book looks at the growth of A&P, which at it's peak sold 10% of the groceries in the US, and at attempts by states and the federal government to restrict them. What makes it interesting is that in many cases, it was middlemen and small business owners who were fighting A&P, while consumers wanted them because they lowered prices. Being pro-small business often meant being anti-consumer, and that meant forcing people to pay more for food at a time during the great depression when money was scarce.

I've always found business, and specifically retailing, interesting, and I've read a number of business histories. It's always fascinating to see how opposed small business owners were to companies that are no longer powerhouses, and in many cases no longer around at all - A&P, Montgomery Ward, Sears, Woolworth. There was a time when these guys were the evil empire, when general store owners would burn Sears catalogs. I always think of this when people grumble about Wal-Mart, because i suspect at some point Wal-Mart too will cease to be a major force in retailing. It's part of the creative destruction of capitalism, and it's especially prevalent in retailing, because it's very easy to switch what store you shop at (especially if you live across the street from a mall like I do).

So if mom-and-pop can deliver a good product, a reasonable price, and convenient parking and hours, you should shop there - but for those reasons, not out of a sense of duty to them for being small businesses. And if a chain store does a better job of those things, you should shop there, and not feel bad about it.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Why do I deal in this crap?

I spent my lunch break today yelling at my computer screen, at one point asking "why am I a complete failure at everything I try?".

No, it wasn't an online dating site - I was bidding on an online auction - online bidding, local pickup. The seller was a guy I've seen at a bunch of auctions, and who I've bought from a previous online auction and did well. The outburst above was after a questionable strategic move - there were two identical items, and the second one - the one i was bidding on sold for way more than the first one one, which was sold by the time I was out bid - but the rest of my disappointment boiled down to the fact that other bidders were willing to pay way more than I was for stuff - willing to pay more, in some cases, than the stuff sells for on eBay. i ended up winning only a couple lots, and probably won't make much off them.

This was the second auction-related disappointment of the week. I took off Wednesday to go to a large monthly consignment auction because they had two sets of items I was interested in - bank-seized office equipment at 11 and very high end studio mastering equipment from an estate at 5. The office equipment was pulled from the auction for legal reasons - the bank didn't give the legally required notice to the debtor that they were going to sell the stuff - and the audio equipment on the auction list was mostly not there - evidently the family had compiled the list, and then the dead guy's girlfriend had taken all the good stuff before the auction. I still ended up buying a couple lots - one of which I think I will do very well on, and one of which I think I overpaid for. I'll probably end up either breaking even or making a very small profit.

And I'll spend a lot of time writing descriptions, taking pictures, and packing and shipping stuff, none of which is particularly fun. I also spent a lot of time and frustration at the auction, and at the yard sales and flea markets I go to. Sure, I get a rush when I buy something and know I'm going to make a bunch of money, and when it actually sells. I've had some major wins this year, but also a couple pricey losses. But is it worth it?

After all, I use weekends and nights and the occasional vacation day for this, and that's supposed to be fun, but much of the time it's more stressful than work... well, ok, maybe not that bad, but it certainly doesn't refresh or relax me. And it means that my house looks like something out of Hoarders, except much of my junk turns over pretty quickly and gets replaced with new and different junk.

But it does make me money. But I've hit the major financial goals - bought a house, have enough saved up to buy the truck I want and pay cash. I can afford to buy my lunch, feed my cat, and spring for the occasional latte. I don't travel, I don't eat out, or go out, or do anything expensive. While I'll tell myself that having more money will help me attract women - I mean, don't they want a guy who can afford to support a family? - I suspect that lack of cash is the least of my problems when it comes to dating.

I've been trying to be more selective about what I buy, especially in terms of the stuff I sell at flea markets, and I've started to get rid of some of the stuff that I'm obviously never going to sell, and to be more agressive about listing stuff. But I've also realized that getting those big wins means going to more auctions, more sales, more obscure places - and that means more time, more frustration, more wondering if it's really worth it.

I had a coworker ask me if it was really worth the time - could i make the same modest profit some other way? But this has it's advantages - I have flexibility, I set my own hours, I can do more when I have time and less when I don't. That wouldn't be true if I was doing consulting or working a second job.

The office equipment that was pulled from Wednesday's auction is supposed to be sold at the next auction in mid-December. And I already have a half day's vacation marked on the shared Outlook calendar at work so I can be there. Even though i'm not sure why.

Greedy and uncaring? No. Entitled? Yes.

A few weeks ago, I read Michel Lewis' excellent book about the global fiscal crisis, Boomerang. At the end of the book (spoiler alert) the author ponders why we got into the crisis, and blames it on the fact that we've become uncaring about our neighbors, that we've gotten to a kind of primal instinct where we want to make sure we get everything and don't care about anyone else.

While i may be a cold-hearted uncaring jerk, I don't think that's true of most people. I think the main reason for much of the stupidity that led up to the fiscal crisis has less to do with a traditional view that life is brutal and short, and thus that we need to grab all that we can, and more of the fact that we've become accustomed to a certain standard of living, and we've forgotten that attaining and keeping that standard of living takes work. In terms of the financial crisis, I think people also mistook luck and good timing for actual work or intelligence, and then tried to base future decisions on the belief that they actually had some sort of skill instead of just luck.

Soon after buying my house, I discovered the genre of house-flipping shows that were popular at the time. Some people have blamed them for fueling the rampant speculation in housing, but some of the shows actually did a pretty decent job of showing spectacular failures, because everyone knows that spectacular failures make for great reality TV. There is one episode I remember well - it started off talking about how the guy bought a condo in California in the early 2000's, and sold it a year later for a 100k profit. This made him think he was a real estate genius, and he proceeded to buy another property to fix up and flip - which, of course, turned into a giant gaping money pit.

I suspect that's a familiar theme. People bought houses before the boom because, well, they were at the point in their lives where they wanted to buy a house. The market then went up, and they had a ton of paper wealth. They assumed that either this was the way it always is - that housing prices normally go up 20% every year - or that they were unusually adept at timing the housing market. They then either borrowed money to buy bigger houses that they really couldn't afford, but figured would continue to climb at stupidly fast rates, or they took out home equity loans against their new, bubbly, inflated house values. They weren't trying to take other people's money - they honestly believed that they were creating wealth.

The other thing is that I think people have forgotten that obtaining a high standard of living takes work - often generations of work. My great-grandparents worked in a woolen mill, 6 days a week 12 hours a day. My grandfather ran a tailor shop. My dad spent part of his career keeping the machines in a chemical plant running. Meanwhile, I sit at a desk for most of the day in front of 3 very nice 23" monitors and click on buttons - and then complain about my job.

I've always liked cars and trucks, and lately I've developed a lust for a Range Rover. I'll drive to work in my perfectly good, 5 year old pickup, and look lustfully at one when I see one, and try to figure out if I could possibly afford one. There is, of course, no good reason that a 31 year old suburban single male who drives 30 miles a day needs a vehicle that costs twice the annual salary of the average American family and is designed for crossing the African safari, but I still feel like a failure that I don't have one. Nevermind that the truck I bought at age 25 is in a lot of ways nicer than what my dad was driving at 50. And my 1200 square foot starter townhouse is actually the average size for a house in 1950 - and has one more full bathroom than the house my parents live in today.

Much of the grumbling about the Occupy Wall Street movement has been that many of the participants are college students, and that that while many have significant student loan debt and no job (or no job doing what they want to be doing) - and i think it's a valid criticism. There seems to be an attitude - not just limited to OWS types - that because you spent 4 years studying Kant and drinking PBR, you are entitled to a good-paying job doing what you want to be doing. I had that view when I graduated college in 2002 with an IT degree - right after the dot-com bubble burst and the 9/11 attacks sent the economy into the shitter. I spent some time living with the parents and temping, and eventually got a job that wasn't exactly what I wanted. I'm still not exactly doing what i want, but I've chosen stability over more money or more personal fulfillment. Because I'm not entitled to those things, and because it's not the fault of the banks, or the government, or the 1%, that I made that choice.

Monday, November 14, 2011

A Long December, err, November..

(with apologies to the Counting Crows)

I can't say that I've been particularly happy with my life in general. I suppose I should be - I've got a decent job, a house, a truck that is visible from space, a good relationship with my family, and an obese cat who at least occasionally prefers my lap to the floor. But I also have a certain emptiness, a feeling of being unfulfilled. Most of that is because I seem to be chronically alone - whatever it is that normal people have in them that lets them meet other people, date, have relationships, marry, raise families - seems to be lacking in me. I don't know if it's looks, attitude, personality, natural selection working to keep my genes out of the gene pool, but it seems that I'm doomed to being alone, to spending my evenings at home wearing sweatpants and balancing a laptop and the aforementioned obese cat.

It's not that I ever forget that I'm alone in a world of couples and families - I'm reminded of it every time I hear my coworkers talk about what they did this weekend, or ever time I'm at the gym or Target or driving around and see happy couples doing things together that I do alone. But this time of year, as the leaves fall and the weather gets colder, always makes me feel worse.

I suspect part of it is that I've got more free time to think, and nothing good ever comes from thinking about the things in your life that you don't like. During the summer, I tend to be a little more occupied - I sell at hamfests, swap meets for computer and ham radio geeks, and most of them fall between Memorial Day and Halloween. I shop yard sales and flea markets, which abound in the summer and are all but nonexistent during cold Baltimore winters. I ran a couple road races this year - another spring/summer/fall activity.

But there's more to it than just more free time - I think the cold, the dark, just makes things worse. There is something about walking out of the gym at 8pm on a cold, dark windy night that just makes me feel sad and alone in a way that walking out at the same time to the warmth of a setting sun doesn't, something about driving home waiting for the heat to come on that seems to bring out the melancholy, while making the same trip with the windows down seems pleasant.

The holidays don't help either - I love my family, but giving up my privacy and routine for several days to be trapped in a modest 70's rancher with them is an adjustment, and seeing them get older and have health issues doesn't help. I find myself feeling guilty I moved away, but not guilty enough to actually leave behind the life I've built 4 hours away - it may not be a great life, but it's become familiar.

And adding to things this year, I've got a project at work that is far more complex and difficult than I had anticipated - and that needs to get done faster than I had expected.

Obviously, the solution would be to figure out why the average single woman would rather sit at home staring at the wall than let me buy her dinner, but given that I've spent the last 15 or so years pondering that with no luck, I probably shouldn't count on a Eureka moment anytime soon. The other thing I can do is keep busy. For normal people with social skills, that would probably mean going out and doing things with other people, but I'm not quite sure what those things are - I have no sport skills, can't dance, and I tried going to grad school for a second master's degree but quit - all I was doing was trading being miserable and bored for being miserable with several hundred pages of reading about things I didn't care about.

I guess i could spend more time at the gym, or go back to the late-night treadmill sprints I'd added to my workouts, but given that the next race is about 6 months away, that's a hard sell. If losing 100 pounds hasn't made my life significantly better outside of clothes shopping and climbing stairs, it's hard to believe that dropping another 10 will.

I've also been trying to get a handle on the messiness of Casa De Mad, my 1200 square feet of townhouse, constructed of the finest pressboard. One of the side effects of running a moderately successful eBay/flea market business is that I have a ton of crap, combined with the usual lack of cleaning that you would expect from a bachelor who doesn't have people over. I've made a very small amount of headway, and and while I hope to make quite a bit more, it's hard to be motivated when you know it's really all in vain, that almost nobody will care that I've got a couple printers sitting in my hallway, because almost nobody will see my house.

So it looks like the way I will deal with the blahs of November is pretty much to wait until April.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

On being a Halloween Humbug, or why won't these damn costumed kids get off my lawn?

Yesterday, I celebrated Halloween by doing the same thing i do pretty much every night - going to the gym after work for a couple hours. By the time I ran a couple errands and got home, it was 8:30 or so, well after all but the hardiest of trick-or-treaters were gone. I then posted a comment on facebook mentioning that "I don't know why I should be expected to provide the neighborhood kids with candy, isn't enough I pay taxes to fund their schools?". This brought a bunch of comments, most comparing me to Scrooge and accusing me of ruining kid's lives, but a few of agreement.

When I shared my philosophy at lunch, including at one point equating being expected to give out candy to socialism, I was asked "do you really believe that or are you just saying it to get a rise out of people?" The answer to this question is, probably, both.

I'll admit that feeling obligated to hand out Snickers bars probably isn't the same as having to labor in a Soviet gulag. But I do think our society has an unreasonable that people should hand out candy on Halloween, and that those that don't are mean jerks. I think it's a nice gesture, but I don't think there is anything wrong with not doing it.

In previous years, I've thought "maybe I'll hand out candy", but I've always ended up not, and either bringing into work or putting it in a bowl on my porch, which always made me worry someone would steal the bowl (it's my cookie-dough-mixing bowl). This year I didn't even bother to pretend I was going to do it.

And, no, my trip to the gym wasn't an intentional means of avoiding candy-grubbing rugrats. I work out pretty much every day - i think I missed the gym 3 days in October, and one of those days I ran a half marathon. It's something that's important to me for a number of reasons, and I'm not going to give it up so that a bunch of kids can get an extra peanut butter cup.

To me, my neighbors are just people who happen occupy the physical space near mine, and home is just a place i eat, sleep, poop, and store my stuff. I rarely talk to my neighbors, so I don't really see any reason why I should be obligated to supply their kids with Skittles. Plus, being around happy couples with their adorable little poop factories just serves as a reminder that being one of those parents seems to be out of reach for me.

So chances are next Halloween my lights will remain off and my door will remain closed.