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It’s the height of home repair season, a time when established contractors are often in demand and unavailable. That’s a big opportunity for the fly-by-night operators to step in.

Hiring a contractor to do work on your home, whether it’s a relatively small job or a major renovation, is a big deal. For most consumers, your home is your biggest investment. It should be treated with the level of respect that comes along with that.

Just like you wouldn’t want some quack of a doctor to perform surgery on you, you don’t want someone with questionable skills to be operating on your home. On top of that, if you do end up with a shady “contractor” you not only run the risk of poor work you also are taking a chance on getting ripped off.

Scams in the home improvement business have been around for a long time. They’re finely tuned and very focused on getting consumers at their points of maximum vulnerability.

Recognizing how their game is played, however, can help you avoid getting ripped off. And, if you play the role of consumer by the book, you’ll have the best chance at getting the job done properly for a fair price.

What to watch out for

Ideally, you should be seeking a contractor rather than the contractor seeking you. So, when someone comes to your door after spotting some loose shingles, cracks in your driveway, or just about any other problem that could benefit from repair, watch out.

One of the oldest scams in involves the door-to-door approach. They’re looking to do two things: tempt you with their immediate availability and get a commitment from you without giving you the benefit of thinking things through or reviewing your options. More than likely they’ll also dangle a price that’s too low to believe. Unfortunately, for many victims, that combination can be irresistible.

You should try to resist, however, because the very next thing after you say you want the work done is you’ll be asked for money. More than likely they’ll ask for cash or, if they take a check, it will be cashed before the job even gets going.

Regardless of whether the contractor looks the part, sounds impressive, or otherwise spins a believable tale, avoid these sorts of spur of the moment decisions. Driveway repair schemes, in particular, are widespread during the spring and summer months. A crew of workers will troll neighborhoods looking for driveways in rough shape and pitch the homeowner that they can do the work then and there on the cheap. Why? Because they claim they have a bunch of asphalt left from a previous job that must be used up. In reality, they drive around with this asphalt and what they want is someone who will lured by the chance of a cheap repaving. The result for the unfortunate people who agree is a scam that involves a demand for more money with the threat of leaving a partly finished job.

How it should work

The simplest way to avoid these contractor scams is to understand the proper way to hire someone to do work on your home. That involves doing a bit of homework and taking the time to screen contractors you are considering hiring.

Recommendations are not the final word, but a place to start. Many jurisdictions license or register contractors. It is vital that consumers make sure a contractor they are considering is properly licensed or registered with the state, county, or municipality where the work is to be done. That’s a way to avoid fly-by-night outfits and typically means the contractor has at least a minimum of amount of insurance so you don’t get left holding the bag if something goes awry. (Here’s a list of state and local consumer agencies by state that can help you track down the rules where you live.)

Check with the agency that licenses or registers contractors- or your state attorney general – to see if many complaints have been filed against any company you are considering. Look on the Better Business Bureau website, as well.

Invite at least three contractors to provide detailed estimates of what they think the work should cost. Getting estimates should be free. At their visit, ask to see their liability and worker’s compensation insurance (if they have anyone working for them). Be sure to ask them to be specific on their estimates, including any particular materials they might use (the brand of window, for instance, if they’re replacing windows). Ask what the estimate includes and does not include. Check if permits will be needed for the job and if they will be getting them. A reputable contractor will play by the rules and take care of those sorts of details. Failure to get a required permit could result have serious consequences for the homeowner.

Always ask when payments are due. Payments should be incremental, starting with a small deposit, followed by percentages of payment made after certain milestones are reached, with the last payment of, say, 25 percent, being withheld until the work is completed to your satisfaction.

The lowest price is not always the best deal. Pay attention to how the various contractors communicate with you, how thorough their estimates are and how inclusive. A shady contractor will offer a low-ball estimate to entice a customer and later jack up the prices. You want to hire someone with an established track record, references you can check, who understands what they’re doing.

It takes more time and more thought, but playing it safe will help you dodge the worst of the worst and avoid home improvement ripoff.


As the title implies, there is a war between consumers and creators, and the battles in this war are played out with money. It’s a war I’ve been seeing from both sides of the trenches. I am a consumer, but more than that, I’ve been writing and thinking about consumer behavior from an empowerment perspective for more than a decade. I am also a creator; I’ve turned my thoughts about culture into a website and a business, for which I’ve needed to market myself as any other entrepreneur might for his or her own business.

In both roles, I read quite a bit. I read about the psychology behind the decisions Americans make as consumers, and I read advice from other business owners about selling their products and brands to these same consumers. On the one hand, I want the public to made the best decisions about money management, but I also see inside stories about how consumers are effectively manipulated into making purchasing decisions — and how business owners should want to use these manipulation techniques to their advantage.

For example, a new study to be published in the October edition of the Journal of Consumer Research shows how certain salespeople in upscale stores can increase sales by being rude to the customers. This would confirm something I had heard years ago about shopping for luxury cars. First of all, conscious consumers might want to avoid wasting money on luxury car brands, for which consumers pay a price for a label or for a perceived experience that goes beyond the basic needs of transportation.

Regardless, the hypothesis was that stepping into a dealership, consumers should be filled with a sense of inadequacy, perpetuated by salespeople who simply ignore them. This in turns makes the customer more desperate to be accepted, more willing to prove they belong in some “secret club.” That need to be accepted results in the customers’ determination to prove their worthiness by completing the purchase.

The new study‘s conclusions are along the same lines, though they focus on designer clothing and accessory brands. And this is just a hunch, but putting aside the truth that you can’t judge someone from outward appearances, this may contribute to the observation that some people you see adorning themselves with luxury and designer items may not be the wealthiest individuals for whom spending extra money for luxury equivalents wouldn’t contribute to long-term financial hardship.

This is a battle that the creators are clearly winning. Exclusivity makes anything more desirable, and brands create this appearance of exclusivity through marketing and advertising, hiring salespeople whose outward appearances fit that vision, and by making everyone feel unwelcome. And consumers fall for it all the time.

One of the researchers who conducted this study offers the following advice based on the conclusions: “… if consumers are being treated rudely, it’s best to leave the situation and return later, or avoid the interactions altogether by shopping online.” This advice sounds easy, but it’s difficult advice to follow because it runs contrary to a internal psychological drive for acceptance.

When you start looking at the bigger picture, a different piece of advice emerges. Don’t be part of the consumer class, be a creator. Learn the tricks that companies use to generate revenue and use those tricks for yourself. Learn to manipulate customers, to sell products effectively. And if you’re successful, you’ll be on the winning side of the war.

This isn’t necessarily bad advice. As a creator who creates — and effectively sells — something unique, you are adding something of value into the world. If your creation isn’t valued by someone, you wouldn’t be successful, and even if your product is not overwhelmingly accepted as good, if someone is buying it, it has some kind of value to those customers. Not every consumer will become a creator, though, and while it’s good to encourage as many people as possible to find something they can bring into existence, most people will not be a successful creator in this particular sense.

The corollary is interesting. Even if some consumers will never be creators, creators never stop being consumers. Everyone needs to consume something in order to live, starting with food and water. Many successful creators have been able to navigate the subtle of their class, and are even better consumers because of it. Relate this to the study pertaining to the salesperson attitudes in designer clothing stores. The average consumer used for this study is not the owner of a designer brand in his or her own right. The average consumer in the study is not a business owner and is not someone who has had the benefit of studying consumer behavior.

It’s hard to imagine the owner of Gucci walking into a Louis Vuitton store, encountering a rude salesperson, and subconsciously fighting for his place by making up for the lack of sales pressure, proving his worth by buying a high-priced item. The owner knows these tricks (and likely never deals with the retail sales channel anyway). This individual is winning the war. He or she is in a position of power to work the system.

And being in a position of power, having the leverage to make the best deals, is the only way to win the war in the end.

Consumer war tactic number one: Learn the tricks the creators use. Consumer empowerment is the first step. You won’t be able to always stop yourself from being manipulated because this occurs at a subconscious level, but you will be able to have a better idea of how you are being manipulated when it happens.

Consumer war tactic number two: Don’t assume you are tricking the creators. And here is where we meet the idea of “extreme couponing.” People who spend a lot of time clipping coupons and buying $20 worth of unnecessary products for $0.05 (plus accumulated store points), if they believe they’re beating the retailers at their own games, are just fooling themselves. If the retailer were getting the short end of the deal, they wouldn’t let you through the door.

Retailers want a certain number of customers to believe they are winning, because it keeps people coming through the door, buying more. I’ve written about extreme couponing previously, so I won’t revisit it, but in general it is not a way to save money over the long-term and is not a part of a sound approach to personal money management. Excessive use of cash-back or frequent flyer credit cards falls into the same category.

Consumer war tactic number three: Become a creator. When you learn about the tricks for consumer manipulation, you may be able to build expertise in perpetrating these same techniques against your fellow consumers. I’m not saying creators are inherently fraudulent, but successful business people are keenly aware of what they need to do in order to sell more of their products.

Is there a line of ethics regarding consumer manipulation? Which of these is not ethical?

None of these techniques run afoul of consumer protection regulations, but they are clearly designed to trick the customer at the point of sale while allowing the seller to claim, “Nothing I’ve said or done is a lie.” When is it considered acceptable to use subtle psychological tricks to increase sales? When you’re the salesperson or creator. It’s a war consumers cannot win by remaining solely consumers.


Although I don’t take advantage of this type of service every time I need to go food shopping, grocery delivery is one luxury I enjoy about once a month. I’ve been a customer of Peapod for about eighteen months. Peapod is a company associated with Stop & Shop, a supermarket in my area. The food they offer is the same as Stop & Shop’s items, including store brands. Throughout almost this entire period, living in a New Jersey suburb, Peapod has been my only choice for food delivery.

That changed a few weeks ago when FreshDirect expanded its delivery service to include my town. That news, accompanied by a $50 coupon, inspired me to try the service. After one delivery from FreshDirect, I think I’m ready to compare the food and experience with that from Peapod.

My grocery needs are simple. I am a single man living in a second-floor apartment. I have no pets. I try to eat healthy food but I mostly fail at that goal. I don’t particularly like cooking, but I have had some success with fajitas. As time permits, I’ll continue my cooking attempts, but I can’t say I enjoy it.

Generally, some items I buy from the grocery store go to waste because I can’t make use of an entire package before it goes bad. For example, even the smallest containers of fresh milk expire before I have a chance to use it all. Add some frequent traveling to my schedule, and the food doesn’t stand a chance of survival, left unconsumed.

I may not be the best shopper to fully compare every small aspect of an online grocery shopping experience, but there are things I see worth discussing, and each service has its own benefits.

Online ordering process.

The process for ordering groceries is the same regardless of which service you use. Both Peapod and FreshDirect ask you to create an account. With both, you can save your shopping list or items in your cart to return at a later time, making it easy to add items throughout the week as you think about them or as you discover you need more. That, in theory, replaces the notepad on the refrigerator, but I still have one there anyway.

Peapod’s website is a little nicer for displaying items up close, but keep in mind the photographs are generic; if you go to a store, you can pick a specific package of meat, for example, while ordering online, your selection is subject to the whim of someone in a warehouse. To the right, you can see the look of the Peapod website, and underneath that, FreshDirect.

During the checkout process, you can choose your delivery date and time. With Peapod, you can save some money on the delivery charge by choosing a wider time frame for delivery. If you need the groceries delivered during a specific two-hour window, the delivery fee is one dollar higher. With Peapod, if I order early in the day, which I almost never do, I can generally find time slots available the following day.

With FreshDirect, however, and probably because I live in one of the outermost counties in the company’s delivery area, I can rarely find delivery windows available for the following two days. As a result, if I plan to shop with FreshDirect, I have to plan more in advance than I usually do.

Delivery and reception.

With Peapod, I can leave a tip for the driver during the checkout process, and I usually leave $5. While you can leave a tip online, if you have coupons to apply to your order, you hand them to the delivery person. I occasionally have coupons to use — but not often since they’re usually not worth the hassle for me. If I have one, I use one.

FreshDirect has not provided me any coupons thus far, except for a online code for $50 off my first order, then another coupon in the mail for $50 off my first two orders. Each time, the discount only would apply to orders over $125. These are codes that you would use during the checkout process online, and it was a struggle to use them. I entered the code in the appropriate place, but FreshDirect responded with a message saying the coupon wouldn’t be applied until I selected a delivery date and time.

I continued with the process, selected an open delivery window, and no longer had an opportunity to enter a code. I had to complete the checkout process and edit my shopping cart later to use the coupon code. Both FreshDirect and Peapod allow customers to modify their orders until a cut-off time in advance of the delivery, so it’s easy to make last additions to your shopping list or cancel the entire order. The services won’t charge your credit or debit card until the order is finalized, and in Peapod’s case, they won’t charge until your food is packed (and weighed, if applicable) at the warehouse and placed on the truck.

With Peapod, the refrigerated delivery truck arrives, and the driver grabs the plastic bags that were organized for the delivery before they were placed on the truck. He — so far, every time I’ve ordered, the delivery person has been male — carries the bags up to my kitchen and presents me with the invoice, indicating if the store needed to make any substitutions or if any of the items weren’t available for any reason.

FreshDirect’s delivery arrives by refrigerated truck as well, but my items have been packed into cardboard boxes, with dividers if necessary. This makes it easy for the delivery person to place the boxes on a hand truck to wheel them to my door. I was much more impressed with FreshDirect’s packaging than with Peapod’s. I have no use for Peapod’s plastic bags. I have little use for cardboard boxes either, but at least they’re better for the environment.

Selection and quality.

I don’t have exquisite taste when it comes to groceries. I do, however, have some favorites, and in those instances, FreshDirect delivers. I don’t drink soda very often, but I like Dr. Brown’s Cream Soda and Black Cherry Soda. Peapod doesn’t carry these drinks, although I can get them in Stop & Shop. FreshDirect also has some prepared meals which are useful in situations where I don’t feel like cooking, although one such meal I received was recalled right after I purchased it. (The company automatically credited my account and encouraged me to discard the item.)

With the deli meats that I order — my typical lunch is a sandwich — FreshDirect seems to offer higher quality. Yet, the same size slices of the same meats seem to last longer when I order from Peapod. That is, even though I order a quarter of a pound, sliced medium, I can make more sandwiches from the result when I order from Peapod than I can when I order from FreshDirect. That may be all in my mind, and it may also be all in my mind that the meat from FreshDirect is tastier.

For fresh meat, FreshDirect customers can customize their cuts, from thickness to weight. Customers can even choose vacuum packaging for an extra fee of $0.50. With Peapod, customers are restricted to a default cut thickness, predefined approximate weights, and cheaper Ziploc-type plastic bags.

FreshDirect has more choices for people who prefer organic foods. I don’t have much experience with that.

Price comparison.

Here are a few examples of the price differentiation between Peapod and FreshDirect.

Item Peapod FreshDirect
Arnold Whole Wheat Bread (each) (sale) $2.25 $4.39
Tuscan Dairy Farms Whole Milk (gallon) $4.69 $4.29
Boars Head Deluxe Roast Beef (pound) $13.99 $12.99
Skippy Creamy Peanut Butter (16.8 ox jar) $4.19 $3.69
Red Delicious Apples (bag of 4) $2.76 $3.99
Store Brand Unbleaced Flour (5 lbs) (sale) $2.00 $3.49

It’s interesting to see that it’s impossible to say, overall, that one store is cheaper than the other. The prices do vary, and this is just a snapshot of items at a snapshot in time. Assuming the prices average out to be roughly equal, the points for consideration are FreshDirect’s slight edge in quality and availability of more of the items I like and Peapod’s flexibility in scheduling delivery. In this case, I think FreshDirect wins, but by a small margin. In a pinch, I can still run to the store to get some of the items I can’t get from Peapod, but that defeats the purpose of delivery.

Update: With a second $50 coupon, I placed my second FreshDirect grocery delivery order. The options for delivery were more varied, and I was able to choose a delivery time within the next twenty-four hours. If this is the likely situation for future orders, FreshDirect will most likely be my delivery option of choice.

Do you have your groceries delivered? What are your experiences?


Someone I know is boycotting Wal-Mart. I would not be able to boycott Walmart myself, as I never shop there in the first place. My absence from Wal-Mart does not have any effect. I believe I’ve stepped inside the store twice in the past decade or longer, and I don’t remember why. The basis for avoiding the store came from visits long ago, while I was in college, and was reaffirmed by at least one of those visits in the past decade.

The stores are designed like bazaars, the people I encountered were rude and sometimes dirty, and the prices were no better than those I could find elsewhere. That’s enough to keep me away. The fact that the company does not respect its employees is another reason to avoid the retailer, but beside the point of my personal experience and preference.

Again this year, Wal-Mart stores featured brawls and arrests as people fought their way for a limited supply of marked-down items like iPad Minis. The store, and other stores like it, are not completely to blame. Yes, retailers manipulate the market to induce high demand and short supply, and this creates hysteria.

Why stores are open on the holidays.

Which comes first? Are stores, like those that open on Thanksgiving, forcing retail employees to spend less time with their families on this holiday, just responding to consumer demand? Or has the retail industry created this monster by hyping up materialism as a piece of American culture since the late 1940s through advertisements (including product placement in entertainment), changing how people living in the middle and lower classes expect to live their lives? Or has the public in the United States simply accepted this type of commercial messaging without wide criticism of behavior or philosophy?

That we’ve ended up with people trampling and killing others at Wal-Mart, like the incident in 2008, is a sad commentary on the state of American culture. The reasons that got us here are complex and intertwined. No, this type of activity, the mass hysteria surrounding the ever-expanding Black Friday time period, is not representative of everyone in the United States, however bad it looks to the outside world.

I not concerned that my not wanting to shop at Wal-Mart, for the reasons I cited above, makes me seem “elitist.” I also don’t shop in stores on the other end of the consumer spectrum, so I’m confident in the sensibility of my tastes.

“I pledge not to shop on Thanksgiving.”

This year, a popular campaign spread through social media: “I pledge to not shop on Thanksgiving. If I’m shopping, someone else is working and not spending time with their family. Everyone deserves a holiday.” A Facebook friend of mine responded to this campaign by welcoming the retail industry to the world he already lives in as an emergency responder. He, like doctors, firefighters, and police, work on holidays, but that’s understandable. If you’re in the business of saving lives, the calls can come at any time. Retail workers do not save lives. Do they deserve to be home with their families more than first responders do?

Others are calling for the government to intercede and force businesses to keep their doors closed on holidays. It’s an interesting concept; states and local governments have often historically required businesses to remain closed on Sundays. Officially, the reasons for these laws tend to be so employees can remain home with their families once a week, but you can’t ignore that the concept stems from a religious influence on government.

If shoppers led the way by refusing to shop on holidays, businesses would see no choice but to remain closed. But because every shopper wants to believe they’re scoring a deal, enough will take advantage of every opportunity. There will never be the a popular protest large enough to force stores to remain closed, but there will also never be the support for laws to do the same thing. We are headed towards a society where the retail industry will be open 24 hours a day around the holiday frenzy season.

Maybe working on holidays won’t be considered to be such a social problem in the future, if retail workers are replaced by robots (and if assaulting a robot becomes a punishable offense — there are many variables to consider). The prevalence of online shopping has probably prevented the adventures in brick-and-mortar shopping from being more deadly than it has been.

But isn’t “saving money” good for Americans?

It’s amazing that with all this focus on so-called saving money, Americans aren’t in better financial shape. Spending with discounts and bargain-hunting is far removed from “saving money.” Of course, it’s not amazing at all, because the prevalence of advertising and a culture of bargain-scouring results in more spending, not less.

As an individual, and certainly as a Consumerism Commentary reader, you may be able to exercise some control. You’re more likely to wait for only the best deals, buying only what you need, but overall, this approach to promotions, including advertising Black Friday deals and opening early, benefits the retail industry more than the purchasing public.

If these deals didn’t make tons of money for the retail industry, the shopping season would not be getting more intense every year. At the same time, a healthy retail industry is supposedly one of the keys to a booming economy. Then again, what worked in the years after World War II may not be as effective today. Retail profit margins are thinner than ever. Much of the profit goes to the manufacturers who are likely to be based outside the United States.

Can “Small Business Saturday” help?

Over the last few years, American Express has tried its own marketing campaign, supposedly to aid the economy. The company’s Small Business Saturday encourages Americans to spend money on the Saturday following Black Friday — after all their money has been spent, anyway — by patronizing local businesses. These are the businesses who can’t discount prices on the same merchandise found in large stores, but can perhaps offer products you can’t find elsewhere.

Small Business Saturday is however just an excuse to get consumers to use American Express cards more often, so the large financial corporation can increase its profits on swipe fees. Many small businesses do not accept American Express cards because the swipe fees (fees the retailer pays to credit card processing companies for each transaction) are higher than those for Visa and MasterCard, but then again, premium Visa and MasterCard credit cards, like those offering rewards and concierge services, can rival American Express in terms of high swipe fees.

So if you really want to help your local business and local economy, shop from small business as often as possible, and use cash.

How did you handle shopping through this year’s Thanksgiving holiday? Did you go shopping and did it take time away from your families? Did you use a Black Friday outing as a way to bond with your family like Erin did? Are you planning to shop locally on Saturday? Does Cyber Monday exist this year? What can society do to change today’s consumerism-focused situation, if you believe it does need to change? Can boycotting accomplish anything?

Regardless of what you’ve done on the consumer side of your life, I hope you — all Consumerism Commentary readers who celebrate Thanksgiving — had an enjoyable and thankful day.

Photo: Flickr/jbhthescots


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Should a Consumer Return a Duplicate Shipment?

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Day one, there didn’t appear to be a problem. Some time earlier, my girlfriend ordered some clothing online. Either she had received a discount to apply to the order or she would receive a future discount in return for placing the order. I’m not clear on the details of the discount, but it’s mostly irrelevant ... Continue reading this article…

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How to Save Money Without Worrying About Coupons

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The retail industry has everyone fooled. While millions of people spend their time scouring for deals, clipping coupons from the newspaper if they’re old-fashioned, plugging into the latest mobile deal applications if they are somewhat more technologically inclined, sharing their finds on Facebook to recruit friends for group deals, the companies on the other side ... Continue reading this article…

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Replace the Dollar Bill With the Dollar Coin: The COINS Act

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Dollar coins

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Elimination of the Payroll Tax Cut Reduced Consumer Spending

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The Great Gatsby Backlash

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Art Deco

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8 Scientifically Proven Principles of Happiness

by Luke Landes
Happiness - 8 scientifically proven principles

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by Luke Landes
Internet sales tax - shopping bags

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by Luke Landes
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What To Do If You’ve Donated to a Fraudulent Charity

by Luke Landes
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