Walmart Tweaks Discount Strategy for Holiday Season

A Wal-Mart Stores Inc. Location Ahead Of Earnings Figures
Walmart Stores (WMT) said it would offer fewer “this weekend only” short-term deals during the holiday shopping season while discounting thousands of items for 90 days as it seeks to entice customers by being more consistent on pricing.

The retailer also said it was launching a new mobile application to reduce waiting times for in-store pickup of online orders as part of an effort to expand a service in which it believes it has an advantage over rivals, like Amazon.com (AMZN), which lack a bricks-and-mortar presence.

The moves were announced in a media briefing to outline its strategy for the November to December holiday shopping season, a crucial time for retailers during which they earn an outsized portion of their annual profits and sales.

We will not be beat on pricing this holiday. If we need to react we will.

The decision to offer fewer short-term discounts comes at a time when Walmart is seeking to burnish its reputation for low prices amid relentless competition online from Amazon.com, supermarkets and dollar stores. It said customers were frustrated by “gimmicks” and wanted more consistent pricing.

“We will not be beat on pricing this holiday,” said Steve Bratspies, chief merchandising officer for Walmart’s U.S. operations, noting its policy of matching rivals’ prices at its stores. “If we need to react we will.”

Walmart said that it would have more “rollbacks,” or discounts that last for 90 days, than the 20,000 offered last year, although it didn’t give an exact figure. Bratspies said the discounts would be across all categories.

Walmart also said it was introducing a “mobile check-in” function to its mobile phone application that would allow shoppers picking up online orders to easily notify the store when arriving to cut down on waiting times.

Walmart said that it was focusing on in-store pickup as a way to take advantage of its 4,500 stores in the U.S. It has recently expanded curbside pickup for groceries ordered online to 23 markets, with plans to add 20 more early next year.

Smartwatches for all kinds this holiday season

Apple Watch

SCHENECTADY, N.Y. (AP) — If you’re looking for a device to track your fitness, alert you to incoming messages and occasionally let you buy stuff with a scan or a tap, there’s no shortage of computerized wristwatches to choose from.

Over the past several months, I’ve tested numerous smartwatches for iPhones and Android devices, along with fitness trackers that have some smarts. I’ve even worn six watches at once during three marathons over the past month, courting both ridicule and some lousy times. (I’m blaming the extra weight.)

Smartwatches and fitness trackers are relatively early devices with a lot of growing up still to do. Temper your expectations, and you might be pleasantly surprised. Just don’t go in expecting magic, because that’s a recipe for disappointment.

Your options will vary depending on whether you use an iPhone or Android, as most of these watches require a companion phone for their smarts. There are also big differences between all-in-one smartwatches and simpler gadgets that primarily track fitness.

SMARTWATCHES FOR ANDROID:

– Samsung’s Gear S2 (starts at $300)

Samsung smartwatches have improved tremendously. Instead of swiping through screen after screen, you now rotate the watch’s circular outer ring to select apps or view notifications. The watch faces can display information ranging from stock quotes and headlines to sports scores. I tracked some Mets games that way, though the watch doesn’t guarantee a win.

The main shortcoming: limited apps. The Gear S2 works with Android phones but doesn’t run Android apps, putting it in a kind of limbo. A few apps from big-name partners like Yelp, The Wall Street Journal and Nokia’s Here (for maps) are available, and Uber is coming soon. But most apps I looked for weren’t there.

As for exercise, the watch mostly tracks footsteps and heart rate. Its mileage calculation is way off unless you’re also carrying a phone with GPS. Alternatively, you could consider the Gear model with both GPS and 3G data for about $50 more, plus an additional $5 or $10 a month for the data plan.

The Gear S2 works with most Android phones, though some features specifically require a Samsung phone.

– Android Wear (starts at $129)

Several companies make smartwatches that run Google’s Android Wear software. I tried the cheapest, Asus’s ZenWatch 2, as a starting point. You can pay more for better bands, features such as built-in GPS or sheer luxury – right up to $1,500 for a model Tag Heuer developed with Intel and Google.

Android Wear has also gotten better. One swipe gets you apps, with recently used ones on top. Swipe again for contacts and again for common tasks. The screen can stay on without draining the battery, something rare in a smartwatch. App selection has also improved; many apps available for the Apple Watch now have Android Wear versions.

Sony’s GPS-enabled SmartWatch 3 worked well for me while running, but other non-GPS devices, including the ZenWatch, were more frustrating. The main health app, Google Fit, doesn’t let you start or stop workouts manually, with or without GPS. It relies on automatic detection and accused me of walking parts of my marathons, even though I didn’t (really!). Several apps offer manual controls, but require built-in GPS or a phone, which can be a pain to carry on a run.

You need an Android phone for full functionality. Android Wear works with the iPhone, but it’s handicapped. You don’t get turn-by-turn navigation on the watch, for instance, as I learned the hard way driving to Toronto with a Moto 360.

SMARTWATCHES FOR IPHONES:

– Apple Watch (starts at $349)

Android Wear will work, but Apple Watch is the one you need for full functionality. Apple put a lot of thought into it, with the inclusion of a lefties mode and a passcode in case you leave it on a bathroom sink somewhere.

Apple Watch stands out in fitness. Although the watch doesn’t have GPS, it learns your walking and running patterns when you have the phone with you, so it’s more accurate than other non-GPS watches when you leave the phone at home.

Apple’s smartwatch doesn’t just count steps. Instead, it challenges – or nags – you to exercise at least 30 minutes a day and to take 12 walk breaks throughout the day. For a perfect score, you also need to burn a certain number of calories – determined by your age, sex, weight and fitness level. With rival devices, I meet my default goals easily. With Apple Watch, even an eight-mile morning run isn’t enough. Bring on the challenge!

Apple Watch lacks advanced features found in sport-specific devices. I rely on a Garmin running watch during workouts, but Apple Watch nudges me the rest of the day.

Battery life isn’t as good as Samsung and many Android Wear devices, though I made it through the recent marathons with plenty to spare by turning off the heart-rate monitor.

FITNESS FOCUSED, FOR IPHONE, ANDROID OR WINDOWS:

– Microsoft Band 2 and Fitbit Surge ($250 each)

These are among the few fitness trackers with built-in GPS and heart-rate monitors. Don’t confuse the Surge with cheaper Fitbit models, which mostly track footsteps. The Surge and the Band are limited smartwatches that can, for instance, notify you of new texts or calls. The Band also offers news headlines and a few apps from the likes of Starbucks and Facebook.

But the Band’s battery life doesn’t cut it for heavy exercise. I outlasted the Band for all three 26.2-mile races. Even turning off the screen didn’t keep it from dying before the finish, in one case just a third of a mile short. By contrast, the Surge lasted each race with plenty of charge to spare. Under normal use, the Surge lasts up to a week.

Both are solid fitness companions – at least for shorter workouts, in the case of the Band. But neither is a replacement for a sport-specific device.

Avoid These 10 Retail Scams That Target Holiday Shoppers

Christmas shoppingWhile you shop for gifts for your friends and family members this holiday shopping season, don’t fall victim to the schemes that retailers use to take advantage of your holiday spirit and eagerness to get a good deal. Learn the most popular retail tricks and why they often work so you can avoid or overcome them this holiday season.

1. They Relax You With Carefully Chosen Music

Think of how noise around you often affects your mood. Head into a store with loud, disruptive music or yelling, and you’ll likely want to get your shopping done and get out of there as soon as possible.

But research reported by the American Psychological Association and European Journal of Scientific Research shows that when you go into a store with relaxing music, you are much more likely to spend more time in the store. Spending more time in a store can lead to spending more money before you leave.

Shoppers who hear classical music while shopping, for example, might spend more money than they planned because classical music is connected to the perception of affluence, reported U.S. News. This tactic is used more frequently during the holiday season, according to retail specialist Mari Corella, who has worked with large national retailers such as Saks Fifth Avenue, Williams-Sonoma and Sears.

“Retailers pump Christmas songs through their stores to invoke emotions of nostalgia and generosity, all leading to a greater basket size,” said Corella.

2. They Use Scents to Get You to Spend More Money

Just as retailers use music to play to your sense of hearing during the holiday season, they also use holiday-specific scents to try to increase your will to spend money, Corella said. “Retailers often scent their stores during the holidays with seasonal fragrances such as gingerbread and pine,” she said. “Similar to Christmas music, this tactic invokes a sense of warmness and generosity, all leading to larger purchases.”

This tactic is used by small and large businesses and can be especially effective when the scent complements music being played, according to Bruce Sanders, a retail consultant, consumer psychologist and author of “Sell Well: What Really Moves Your Shoppers.”

“Small retail stores use candles, and large retailers use fragrance diffuser machines,” Sanders said. “If Christmas music and Christmas scent in the store match up, people say they like the store and merchandise better and are more likely to shop at the store.”

Sensory experiences can play a large role in your perception of a store and brand. The more pleasant a shopping experience is, the more likely you’ll walk out the door with less money in your hand.

3. They Take Advantage of Nostalgia

Retailers frequently sell items that appeal to people’s feelings of nostalgia, such as a ’50s-style dining set, an old-school video game system or a retro turntable.

Gifts that trigger a memory or inspire a young person to try something from the past can offer richness that general gifts like candles cannot, according to Fortune Magazine.

Creating these feelings of nostalgia seem to have a significant impact on the spending behaviors of shoppers. Nostalgia led shoppers to pay more money for products and value their money less, according to a study from the Journal of Consumer Research.

4. They Use Bulk Pricing

You might be accustomed to seeing “buy two for the price of one” deals, but you can expect even more of them — and larger bulk offers — during the holidays.
Grocery stores, in particular, use this tactic frequently, such as by offering 10 items for $10, making you think you have to buy 10 to get the $1-an-item deal. But, usually, you can get the deal price regardless of how many items you buy.

Research has shown that adding the sentence “maximum 8 cans per customer” to the price tag of soup cans caused sales to increase by giving the illusion of a great discount even if none was offered, according to Time Magazine.

5. They Use the Number 9

While shoppers are accustomed to the majority of retail items going for prices such as $39.99 instead of $40, not many shoppers stop to think about why merchandise is priced this way. Not using round numbers is another trick intended to make you spend more, according to William Poundstone, author of “Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value.”

In his book, Poundstone looks at eight different studies on the use of what is called “charm prices” and found that using this pricing method increased sales on average by 24 percent when compared to the use of rounded, even pricing. While this pricing structure probably won’t change anytime soon, customers should just remind themselves that while $39.99 looks cheaper than $40, it’s only a 1 cent difference.

6. They Play Tricks on Your Eyes

Stores often put items with the best price margins for them right at eye level for you so that you see them easily. Items that are better buys for the customer — and therefore not as profitable for the retailer — are more likely to be found at the bottom or top of an aisle.

“This is a classic retail tactic,” Corella said. “Eye level is such valuable real estate that retailers charge manufacturers to have placement there. This cost is then passed on to the consumer. And kids are not exempt from this tactic either, as products targeted towards children are placed at their eye level.”

7. They Mark Up Prices Before the Holidays

Kyle James, founder of Rather-Be-Shopping.com, a site that helps consumers save money, said the holiday season is notorious for what is called “high-low pricing,” which often tricks consumers into thinking they are getting a much better deal than they really are.

“[High-low pricing] is when retailers have relatively high everyday prices, then release ‘holiday’ coupons to make you think you’re getting an amazing discount via the coupon,” said James. “In reality, retailers that use high-low pricing know they’ll sell minimal items at full retail, and if they do, it’s a bonus.”

James said you’ll likely see this tactic used as many popular retailers during the holidays including Ann Taylor, JCPenney, Kohl’s and Old Navy.

8. They Convince You to Buy Gift Sets

Head into a place like Bath and Body Works or Williams-Sonoma, and you’ll find plenty of gift sets, whether it’s a set of lotion, body wash, and perfume or a BBQ essentials kit. These gift sets even come in nice packaging, which means you have a beautiful-looking gift ready to go.

Gift sets seem like a great deal because the value of all items priced together is typically lower than if you were to buy them separately. The stated value of the set, however, is the full retail of all items in it, so it can sometimes be cheaper to buy the items separately if they are on sale, Corella said. Buying gift sets also can lead to overspending, she said.

“This is also an upsell tactic where you come in to buy a single item but end up with a gift set because it seems like you get so much more for just a few more dollars,” Corella said.

9. They Skew Perception With New Luxury Items

The holiday season is a popular time for some retailers to mix luxury items into their product assortment so that prices on their regular items look much more reasonable by comparison, Sanders said.

“When Neiman Marcus publicizes their annual Christmas Book, they highlight the Fantasy Gifts, which for 2015 include a $125,000 bourbon tasting tour and a $90,000 balloon ascent to the edge of space,” Sanders said. “Leading off by thinking about these, the Christmas Book browser starts to consider that $895 price for a designer triacetate-and-polyester gown as a little more down to earth. The price of the first item considered becomes an anchor for what the shopper expects to pay.”

10. They Make Finding Clearance Items Hard

Clearance racks or shelves are often located all the way in the back of a store or hidden as much as possible because retailers want you to have to walk through the entire store to get to them, according to Business Insider. By walking through this layout, you’re more likely to see higher priced items and potentially buy them. Once you do find the clearance section, it’s purposefully in a state of disarray. True bargain shoppers don’t mind sifting through the mess to find the great deals, but the average shopper is more likely to be turned off by the obstacle and instead buy non-clearance items, letting the retailers win.

While shopping this holiday season, be aware of these tricks that retailers use to try to outsmart you so that you can instead outsmart them and buy only what you really want. Your wallet and bank account will thank you.

Will You Be a Credit Card Fraud Victim This Holiday Season?

Senior woman looking horrified at computer monitorThree letters may spell trouble for you in the frantic shopping season that is about to explode: CNP, which stands for Card Not Present. That — obviously — is how online merchants process payments (unlike, say, a local pizzeria, they never see or touch the plastic). And at least some experts are predicting an explosion in CNP over the holidays.

CNP fraud is going up three times faster than card present fraud, said Julie Conroy, a banking expert at consulting firm Aite Group.

That was expected, kind of — but the fast velocity of growth is much brisker than had been anticipated. And, said Conroy, expect to see still more: “We see steady growth for CNP fraud.”

The trigger event happened Oct. 1 when both merchants and card issuers were supposed to — by edict of MasterCard (MA) and Visa (V) — be ready for so-called EMV cards, aka chip cards. The plus of a chip card is that it dramatically cuts down on card counterfeiting. With mag stripe cards, card printers were plentiful and cheap, as was card stock. Anybody with a stolen credit card number could print out a new card and be in business thieving at a local merchant. Not so with EMV, where the chip technology introduces complexities that, so far, seem beyond the ability of crooks, certainly of run-of-the-mill criminals, to manufacture counterfeits.

So they turn to online shopping where the chip plays no role, because — again — the online merchant never sees or touches the plastic.

Just about very fraud expert had predicted a spurt in CNP fraud post Oct. 1, but Conroy is saying CNP started exploding before Oct. 1, and the theft has just kept on surging.

She’s not alone. ACI Worldwide, a global provider of electronic payment and banking solutions, has said its data show a 28 percent spike in card not present fraud, which ACI attributes to the deployment of EMV.

Branden Williams, a vice president at large credit card processor First Data (FDC), said there’s worse to come. According to him, First Data expects the real explosion of CNP fraud to happen next holiday season, not this one. That’s because for now criminals have plenty of retailers that aren’t yet EMV compliant (he estimated that maybe 80 percent of terminals aren’t).

Even so, Alisdair Faulkner, chief product officer at security company ThreatMetrix, predicted: “We expect to see a dramatic spike in CNP over the holiday season. For many retailers a large amount of profits come in a short period. Businesses find it hard to scale fraud detection systems.”

The crook’s hope: his stolen credit card will escape notice in an avalanche ofcredit cards used, say, on Black Friday.

Multiple experts also said they believed the top online retailers — think Amazon (AMZN) — are well prepared for the surge in CNP fraud attempts. But small- and mid-sized online retailers, not so much. Crooks may find the going easy with the smaller fry.

Understand: this puts you in the crosshairs. Thieves have at their disposal hundreds of millions of stolen credit card numbers — from Target (TGT), HomeDepot (HD) and other breaches — and they are putting those numbers to use making Card Not Present purchases online. Yes, you are protected against loss, especially with credit cards (protections are weaker for debit cards), but you have to notice a fraudulent transaction and report it. This is no time to get negligent about reading credit and debit card statements. Double down on that chore, because the criminals are doubling down on their thieving.

Is there more you can do? Said Chris Strand, an EMV expert with security firm Bit9+Carbon Black: “It’s up to us to be proactive. The bank may or may not be. We can take control.”

How? Jim Wang, who blogs at WalletHacks, offered a clever tactic. He gets instant notification from a credit card whenever a CNP transaction occurs. He said American Express (AXP) offers that. “For other cards that don’t offer CNP alerts, I turn on security alerts via email for transactions over $10,” Wang added. “It might sound like a lot of notifications but the emails arrive shortly after the transaction, so I always remember the purchase that triggered it.”

Isn’t that a lot of work? It is. But know this: trying to clean up credit trashed by identify theft criminals is a lot more work. More advice — a labor-saving tip from multiple experts — is save time in the holiday season by using just one credit card for the bulk of our purchases. That makes it all the easier to stay on top of what’s happening inside your credit.

How to Avoid Holiday Season Credit Card Rip-Offs

close up of woman hand holding...“Buy now, pay later” is the modern way of life. Credit cards are a highly profitable business for the companies that issue them, so it’s no surprise that banks continue to inundate consumers with credit card offers, especially during the shopping frenzy of the holiday season. These come-ons are among several financial traps lurking out there today.

Visa (V), MasterCard (MA), Discover Financial Services (DFS) and American Express (AXP): Their cards are common fixtures in hundreds of millions of wallets around the world. According to Federal Reserve data, the average credit card debt per card-holding U.S. household is $16,140. In total, the average American consumer owes $918.5 billion in credit card debt.

You probably get credit card offers in the mail all the time; the volume of unsolicited offers tends to increase the day after Thanksgiving. Here’s some important information that will help you sort through the pitches and separate the good values from the rip-offs.

The Introductory Rate

The introductory rate, or “teaser rate,” expires after a designated period of time. Federal law requires introductory rates to remain in effect at least six months after signup. This rate is below market and typically applies only to balance transfers and cash advances, although they can also apply to purchases. Introductory rates are usually extremely low, ranging from zero to 4 percent for up to 12 months. Be sure to read the fine print for what the percentage rate will be once the initial introductory period ends.

Annual Percentage Rate — Fixed vs. Variable

If you don’t pay your balance in full by the due date, you’ll be charged interest on the remaining balance. How much interest you pay is determined by the annual percentage rate, or APR, on the card.

If you pay the full balance on your credit card every month, you won’t have to pay any interest on your balance ($0), and can ignore APRs.

All credit cards have either a fixed or variable APR, determined largely by the “prime rate,” which is the interest rate commercial banks charge their most creditworthy customers, which are usually corporations. For example, if a bank is offering a credit card at “prime plus 5” and its prime rate is 6 percent, then the bank is essentially offering customers an 11 percent loan (6 percent + 5 percent).

A fixed APR locks in your rate so that it does not fluctuate with changes to the prime rate on which it is pegged. The variable APR, on the other hand, moves in step with the prime rate. If conditions are volatile and interest rates spike, the variable APR that originally enticed you can end up bearing little resemblance to what you actually pay.

While it’s preferable to have a card with a fixed APR, these cards are few and far between. As of this writing, the average fixed APR is at 13.1 percent and the average variable APR rate stood at 15.7 percent.

Cards for Bad Credit

Everyone deserves a second chance. At least that’s the premise behind credit cards for those with bad credit. In most cases, these types of credit cards are “secured,” which means that the person must put money onto the card upfront before he or she can access the credit via the card.

Some companies offer “unsecured” credit cards with low credit limits and high interest rates. These rates can reach up to 20 percent or higher.

The rationale for secured and unsecured cards is that, in today’s society, a credit card confers legitimacy on people and makes life easier. It’s becoming harder and harder to function by simply using cash. Also, if you have bad credit but you rack up a good history with these types of cards, you can repair your damaged credit score.

Rewards

Some credit cards are tied to charges for hotels, rental cars, air travel, grocery and gas purchases, etc. The premise is that the more products and services you purchase, the more “points” you earn in return for free or discounted rewards.

But beware: Many of these incentive-based cards come with high interest rates and big annual fees. That said, if their interest rates aren’t excessive and there aren’t a lot of hidden restrictions or fees, reward cards can be a good deal, offering free hotel rooms, bonus rental car use, free airline tickets — you name it.

Nonetheless, cast a discerning eye on the agreement. For most frequent flyer credit cards, you’ll see high interest rates and restrictions for the privilege of getting miles in return. It’s not worth it and tantamount to paying for overvalued stocks.

Evaluating the Key Areas

Now that you’ve been tutored on the basics, here are the most important areas to scrutinize when weighing the pros and cons of a credit card offer:

What’s the interest rate? Compare fixed and variable APRs. If you think interest rates will remain stable, you might want to opt for the lower variable rate. Remember, that’s a risky option. If interest rates go up, you lose.

Thanks to the new credit card laws, the companies that issue cards can’t raise rates on existing balances during the first year unless a prior promotional rate expired, the index on a variable index rate increased, or you were 60 days late in paying your bill. If your rate rises because of a late payment, the bank is required to restore it to its lower rate once you’ve made six consecutive monthly payments, on time of course.

Is there an introductory rate? If so, what is it and how long does it last? If the introductory rate is more than 13.1 percent (the average fixed APR) and doesn’t last at least six months, forget it.

Is there an annual fee? A credit card annual fee is a yearly fee — typically ranging from $15 to $300 — charged by the credit card company for the privilege of letting you have the card. Don’t agree to pay much more than about $50. If you can, opt for a card with no annual fee.

What’s the late fee? If you make a late payment, what will you get charged? A typical credit card late fee is about $35.

What’s the over-the-limit fee? Look for cards that don’t impose a charge of this kind. Some cards will notify you if you’ve gone over your limit without hitting your pocketbook with a penalty.

Are there any hidden fees? Some cards charge balance transfer and account termination fees. Avoid these cards. You can find cards that don’t incur such fees.

Also beware of fishy interest calculations. There are many ways a card issuer can calculate interest owed. One of the shadiest tricks is to use a late payment as a reason to jettison the interest-free period for new purchase transactions and then calculate the interest as far back as the original purchase date.

Another dodgy maneuver is to charge daily interest on the full purchase amount even if partially repaid on deadline. Read the fine print on your credit card statement. If the contract allows the card company to get away with either of these schemes, cancel your card and look for one that only charges interest from the date the new statement was produced.