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Shopping


The National Retail Federation has admitted defeat. Sales over the past holiday weekend dropped 11% over Thanksgiving weekend in 2013 according to the organization in a press release yesterday. The organization reversed course after being highly positive about the prospects for shopping leading up to the announcement of the estimated figures.

Shopping traffic for the weekend dropped 5% or 6%, depending on how you want to calculate it, compared to last year. The Federation tried to put a positive spin on the news.

I avoided shopping this weekend, from Thanksgiving day through today, the so-called Cyber Monday. Don’t get me wrong — there is much shopping I want to do before the holidays in December, but the excessive deal-wrangling this weekend just drives me away from wanting to pursue any shopping.

I’m not so much of a bargain hunter. I am interested in good deals, but most of the supposed bargains you see around Thanksgiving look good and sound good, but just aren’t all that good. And the details that are truly good, whatever that means, are almost always for items I wouldn’t want or don’t need.

For deal shoppers, the best time to buy is generally after Christmas, but there are a few obvious problems with that. First, it’s difficult to generalize. Overall, this might be true, but for any particular item, there’s no way to know. That’s why shoppers rely on Black Friday deal ads. They give shoppers some confidence, even if the resulting deal is not the most ideal price for any particular item. If you buy a gift using a Black Friday ad or Cyber Monday deal, you feel good about saving money, and for the human brain (but not your future self), that’s better than actually saving money.

The best method I’ve found for spotting good deals is CamelCamelCamel. This only applies if you have a specific item in mind, if that product is sold on Amazon.com, if Amazon.com generally offers the best price for that item among retailers, if you’re not on a tight time frame for making the purchase, and if you are willing to be a customer of Amazon.com. CamelCamelCamel is a website that tracks Amazon.com’s prices and can alert you whenever the price reaches a certain point. That price point could be one that you specify as your trigger, or it could be a price suggested by the CamelCamelCamel service using an algorithm that takes into the previous lowest price for the item.

The best thing about CamelCamelCamel is that it makes me wait. I’ve had items registered — it can work directly with your Amazon.com wish list if you want — for over a year, and suddenly, I’m alerted that an item, say a movie Blu Ray set, has reached my price point. The delay ensures I’m no longer under the influence of an impulse desire to purchase. Because if there’s something I want and need right away, and the cost is reasonable, I’m going to buy it right away rather than wait for a deal.

But if I know that, for example, the remastered Star Trek: The Next Generation season Blu Rays are eventually sold for more than a 60% discount off their initial sales price, usually within a year, I just set my price point trigger and wait.

And maybe more and more consumers are like me, bypassing the heavily advertised deals for more researched best prices. That could be one contributing factor to this year’s sharp decline in consumer activity over the traditionally biggest sales weekend of the year.

What role does the larger economy have? If people feel they are worse off financially, they might not plan on shopping as much this year as they did last year. If, however, people feel they are in a better financial position than they were last year, they could be less likely to pay attention to the holiday sales. In other words, you could use just about any state of the economy to justify both a strong and a weak holiday shopping season.

There might be some legitimacy to the idea that people feel better about the economy, which takes away from the desire to seek bargains at every opportunity. It’s clear that the recession in 2008 had long-lasting effects, not just in terms of employment, but in approach to life and money. Ideas like frugality, extreme saving, and supercharged planning for retirement became much more popular and legitimate than during times of stronger consumer confidence.

Throughout this period following the recession, I considered whether this was a permanent shift in approach along the lines of how the Great Depression affected an entire generation’s approach to money. The question was whether Millennials or Generation Y would be defined by the recession. My thought has always been that this is temporary, and I still think that is the case.

Perhaps this past weekend is the first indication that once Millennials feel more confident about their financial situation — and the lower gas prices may go a long way to reinforce that feeling today. Holiday sales are still driven by shoppers aged 18 to 34, so if this group is feeling better about the economy, this could be start of the generation’s shift away from conscious spending. It was fun (and successful) while it lasted.

The increase in confidence, whether it’s starting now or not, is going to have some profound effects. The value of assets — the stock market, real estate, etc. — will increase. Even if retailers continue to see problems throughout this year’s holiday season, the long-term prospect for sales are good. Confidence overflows into all areas of commerce, at least for some time. And during that time, shareholders benefit.

Workers feel confident about their employment prospects, so executives work harder to retain the best talent. Salaries increase. Disposable income increases. Prices also increase, but consumers handle it.

Another potential drawback that resulted in this year’s decrease in spending is the backlash surrounding the idea that retailers want to remain open on Thanksgiving Day. Retailers claim they are responding to customers’ demand to allow in-store shopping during the holiday, and there’s no doubt there are more than enough shoppers lined up during the holiday to give stores a reason to open. But employees are generally not happy. No one wants to be forced to work when the rest of the country is celebrating a holiday that supposedly focuses on time with family and friends.

And there are movements that encourage people to change their shopping behaviors during the holidays, whether’s it refusing to patronize stores that remain open on Thanksgiving, refusing to buy anything on Black Friday (also known as “Buy Nothing Day”), or encouraging shopping at family-owned local stores rather than large national and online retailers. These trends permeate Generation Y as much as or more than the desire to spend frugally. There’s no question that this disdain for large corporations, consumerist culture, and mass materialism has an effect on shopping attitudes for a good proportion of Millennial shoppers.

Did do any holiday shopping between Thursday and today? Was your approach different than last year’s? Are you spending more money for the holidays this year?

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For some reason, this year I’ve been bombarded more than any other year by advertisements for Black Friday deals. The marketing is coming from helpful people who just want to share the good news with their friends, people who are clearly paid to spread the messages, and retailers who simply want people to buy as much as possible so they can show a profit on their financial books this year.

Many of the “Black Friday deals” you hear about are not good bargains, they’re just marketed in a way to make people believe they are. Furthermore, even if an advertisement is a good deal for someone, it may not be a bargain for you. Here’s how to see past the dirty marketing tricks and determine where and how it’s worthwhile to spend your money this holiday season.

Be skeptical of every advertisement, even if it’s coming from a trusted source.

Dirty trick: companies use your friends and other trusted entities to convince you a deal is worthwhile.

When retailers or manufacturers pay the public to advertise for them, it changes the natural order of communication. If I were to ask you to share a deal I’m offering, let’s say it’s a notebook computer for $400, you might not think it’s such a great deal, and you’d be unlikely to share it. But if I offered the deal and said I’d pay you $25 for every sale you refer to me, you’d be more likely to share the deal. And why not? A few sales and you’d be able to buy the notebook computer for yourself.

Many people sharing their favorite deals have the promise of their own income as a motivating factor for sharing the deals. I’m no stranger to this; sales, while a small part of my business, contributed strongly to the value of that business, which eventually allowed me to sell that business and remove myself almost completely from the sales process. Eventually, those who share bad deals as if they’re good will eventually stop because they will, over time, not be seen as a trusted source. But there will always be others.

Being skeptical and always asking questions is the basis of one money system that will lead you to success in building wealth.

Price history and future.

Dirty trick: Advertisements make you think a price is good when it’s not.

One question you want to ask is whether the deal is a good price, not just based on history but on the future as well. Advertisements can make a price seem good when it is not by evoking an emotional response rather than providing the information you need to make a good decision.

On the whole, Black Friday ads published by reputable retailers do a good job of offering the lowest price for many items thus far, but what may be difficult to predict are price movements between Black Friday and the holidays. (This yeah, Hanukkah falls very close to, and even on, Thanksgiving, but that isn’t the case most years.) In many cases, Black Friday deals don’t look as good in hindsight, because depending on the items, prices continue to fall as retailers want to eliminate their inventory before the new year.

According to Consumer Reports, prices almost always fall after Black Friday and Cyber Monday. The frenzy and hype surrounding these shopping events often cloud what is really happening with prices. The Wall Street Journal agrees.

Plan your shopping and stick to the plan.

Dirty trick: Advertisements encourage impulse decisions, and consumers spend more.

Most holiday shopping mistakes occur because it’s easy to make impulsive purchasing decisions. When a sale lasts just one day like Black Friday — or when a desired item is likely to run out of stock within hours of a store’s opening — the emotional frenzy takes over and rational decision-making loses. Maybe you can get a toaster oven for $15, but if you weren’t planning to give anyone a toaster oven and you have your own, you’re not saving $40, you’re spending $15. That’s not saving; that’s spending.

“Buy now while supplies last” is one message that successfully encourages shoppers to spend more than they otherwise would, in this case, with a sense of false urgency. And even if supplies don’t last (they might not with “doorbusters”) there will always be a roughly equivalent alternative.

Bargain culture has taken over the concept of holiday shopping. People look for deals just to be proud of their shopping savvy. But if it’s not on your list, it’s not a deal for you.

Deals help retailers clear inventory of discontinued items.

Dirty trick: Heavily discounted items are often worth less than nothing to the retailers.

Many of the Black Friday deals you’ll experience are able to be priced as they are because they are discontinued or old items. Technology moves quickly. One of Best Buy’s biggest deals in its Black Friday advertisement is for $100 off an iPad 2. This sounds like a great deal, and for someone, perhaps a kid, it might make a good gift. But the problem is that this version of the iPad is considered old technology. It won’t even run some of the more modern iPad applications. A year from now, the iPad 2 will seem positively ancient.

This particular iPad (the 16GB variety) isn’t technically discontinued, but its cousins are, and there have been three generations of iPads since the iPad 2 was introduced. In terms of technological advancement, it’s already ancient.

Many other technology products follow similar cycles. Many deeply discounted items in Black Friday ads have been out of date for a year or two. If buying a product that will continue to receive support from the manufacturer and will remain competitive in the marketplace for a good amount of time is important to you, there are two things that can happen. If you buy the deeply discounted item, you’ll be unhappy with the purchase earlier. Or, if you like the deal but want a more current version of the product, you will end up spending more money for the more up-to-date item.

How to shop for the holidays intelligently.

I’m tempted to completely ignore the holiday marketing season. For me, and for many other people, it’s a waste of time. Buy what you need or strongly want, maintain some discipline, and be done with it. As studies show, Black Friday isn’t the best time to buy most things in terms of price.

But there are some good resources that are worthwhile if you do have a fairly typical household where paying attention to actual, not purely marketing, bargains might help. The drawback of putting time into this endeavor is that it’s very easy to get sucked into the shopping frenzy and spend more money than you need to. The holiday season is terrible for long-term wealth building.

But if you must, there are a few essential resources.

  • Keep your eye on bfads.net, where you can find deals on just about everything that exists for the holiday season. This is just everything, so there’s no good indication of what might be a legitimate bargain and what won’t be. You need to use a critical eye.
  • Consumer Reports is simply the best in terms of editorial when it comes to holiday shopping. They are not as easily influenced by the retail industry, and the writers are willing to speak the truth. The magazine’s ratings are absolutely invaluable when it comes to making larger purchases, inside or outside the holiday season.
  • It’s best to remain skeptical when reading even the best blogs and websites with holiday deals, but you may want to start with SavingsLifestyle, FatWallet, and CNET.

What are your plans for holiday shopping this year?

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The diner is a New Jersey staple of the restaurant industry. Once you sit down at a diner, you are presented with a thick menu, enumerating more dining options than you could possibly handle. If there’s any indication that having more choices makes the selection process more difficult, it’s the diner menu.

The story of the man who drives to work and spends too much money on lunch.

Although I generally don’t listen to the conversations at adjacent tables, when the topic turns to financial issues, my ears perk up.

While I was enjoying a nutritionally dangerous Reuben sandwich at the local dinner this weekend, I overheard two women discussing their male acquaintance — possibly the son of one of the women.

The particular individual, the topic of this discussion, was saddled with a $400 car payment each month and a monthly charge of $400 for his transportation costs. This is New Jersey, where commuting to the office is a common pastime.

More damaging to this man’s financial situation, according to these women, however, was his habit of buying lunch every day. This man’s story was my story for many years. I remember my days working in an office, commuting to work. My company’s building included a cafeteria, where I could enjoy large portions for a large price.

I wasted so much money, and I would like to say I learned from these mistakes, but I never get the hang of it.

One of my biggest financial failures.

The convenience of the cafeteria prevented me from putting a serious effort into saving money by making my own lunch.

As I was no fan of cooking in general, I just didn’t want to be bothered with what I perceived as extra work. As my side business thrived, the money saved by brown-bagging my lunch seemed decreasingly relevant.

Although I didn’t experience personal success saving money by bringing in self-made meals rather than buying expensive cafeteria meals or visiting local restaurants for lunch, it’s still a good idea, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone, from single men and women to families.

At the time, I was aware of a system that would have helped. Putting this financial system into action, the plan I will describe below, makes wealth growth easier to achieve, especially when starting from a vulnerable position with money. If you’re spending more than you earn, even on necessary expenses like food and housing, successful money systems are more imperative.

A successful system becomes a habit. Once you’ve established a routine, these tasks should seem natural. Although I didn’t quite get to that point on my own, had I remained in a bad financial place, I would have had no choice but to figure it out.

The system anyone can put in place to cover up the financial hole this poor gentlemen lets his friends or relatives discuss with disdain at the diner comes in two parts.

Part one: buy groceries on a schedule.

When I wrote last week about automating your savings, I described several other systems. In one of these examples, I described a potential system for shopping for groceries.

There are several options or features included in a grocery shopping system.

I keep a pad on the refrigerator, noting the items that are running low or that have run out. If I don’t make a note, I’ve found that I have trouble recalling what I need in the next shopping trip. This way, in addition to my regular food order, I know that I need to pick up garbage bags the next time I visit the store or place my order online.

In terms of food, I generally order the same items each time I shop. If I’m shopping online and having the groceries delivered, this is easy. The Peapod website keeps a record of my orders, and I can choose from any previous order when starting the next online shopping trip.

This saves me time, and when it comes to chores like food shopping, I want to save as much time as possible. Ordering from the same list every week (or two weeks) keeps me focused and offers less of an opportunity to browse or spend money on items I don’t need.

Alternative option: packaged meals and meal plans.

When I expressed my laziness in cooking, many people have suggested that I try ordering pre-made frozen meals such as those offered by online meal planners like eMeals or eDiets. eDiets no longer offers meal delivery; they seem to work with another company, ChefsDiet.

It’s unclear whether ChefsDiet provides enough food for a family or whether the meal portions are designed for one person. The price does not exactly make this the frugal choice, if it is in fact for one person as it appears to be. The daily prices range from $30 to $60. Shopping for ingredients and cooking is the much more frugal option, but for someone who doesn’t have time or has no desire to cook, perhaps it’s an expense worth dealing with.

But don’t forget the goal here is to save money habitually in order to achieve financial independence faster, but prioritization is a personal matter. If you’re willing to sacrifice wealth for personal convenience, you’re an adult, and you’re free to make that choice as long as it’s an informed decision and you weigh the consequences.

The plans from eMeals and eDiets no longer include delivery, but for the price of a subscription, you can have these companies take care of the system. They will provide you with meal planning guides for every day and a shopping list to make sure you’re getting everything you need.

It can take the guesswork out of planning meals, but at an expense. Even still, it is possible to save money over the long term because if you can’t stick to a system on your own and revert to dining out frequently, your finances will not improve.

Part two: cook one day, freeze your meals.

This is the advice I’ve heard the most as others observed the sorry state of my food spending and health and were concerned enough about my well-being to offer suggestions.

  • Cook healthy meals on Sunday, when you have fewer time constraints and less stress.
  • Freeze the meals to be thawed and eaten throughout the week.
  • Buy a small soft cooler with a lock to package your lunch to take into the office if you work outside your home.

This can be a winning strategy for saving money regardless of the size of your household. The bigger the household, the bigger the savings, and the more money you’ll have free for the future or for other pressing needs.

The key is turning this process into a habit. And that might mean making it more enjoyable. I’ve never been a big fan of cooking, and so I’ve avoided it as much as possible. But I have discovered that when I put my mind to the process, it can be a somewhat creative outlet for me.

For example, the geekiness in my personality can be satisfied by experimenting with different taste combinations. I have the opportunity to consider other recipes and add my own potential improvements. Even when I’m not feeling creative with culinary, knowing my way around a kitchen and its various gadgets in order to complete the chore of cooking can be somewhat fulfilling.

So how much money can you save? For me, lunch in the cafeteria used to cost between $8 and $10. Eating out for dinner or ordering delivery could cost anywhere from $10 to $20 a meal. Had I done more to cook healthy dinners and eat leftovers for lunch, or made better use of sandwich meats, I could have saved $10 a day or more. That’s about $250 a month just taking weekdays into account; dining out less over the weekends could save another $100 a month.

$4,200 a year might not sound like a lot, but at a time, it was one tenth of my income. That’s significant enough to make a big difference over the long-term. Instead of saving 10% of my income for future financial freedom, I was wasting it.

How closer will this get you to financial freedom? It’s hard to say. As you get into habits where you make better financial decisions in one area, you have an effect on the decisions you make in other areas. With better systems in place, you create your own micro-culture of better financial living, and that helps bring financial independence significantly closer.

The key to successfully building wealth is finding the systems that work for you and sticking with them. Meal planning is perfect for such a system.

Forming a habit takes some time and motivation. Even if you’ve failed before, like I have, continuing to put some effort into designing your approach to food can save you money fairly quickly when you’re used to dining out frequently.

Do you have a system put in place for food shopping and preparation?

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On Sunday, I decided to take another shot at improving my time management skills. For as long as I can remember, time management has never been my strength. Always drawn to activities I find exciting, sometimes my responsibilities suffered. I’ve been through a number of programs and read a number of books designed to improve my time management skills, and at times applied some new techniques to my life, even if they were common-sense changes. The implementations were somewhat successful for a few days, but I found it easy to fall into old habits.

Nevertheless, I made it work. I’ve been for the most part successful in the jobs I’ve had, and I was able to do this without sacrificing too much of my extravocational activities. Everything came together, though, when I was able to turn one of my biggest and most exciting hobbies into a business. I became a small business owner, or a start-up founder, or the word I hate, entrepreneur. Business experts often say successful entrepreneurs need to manage their time wisely. I never got to the point where I felt I was making the best use of most of my waking hours, yet I would consider the business a success.

For the last year, I’ve been moving into a different phase with the business, one in which my responsibilities are changing and I’m looking for new growth opportunities outside of the business. I also want to make an effort to spend more time on unrelated activities, like newer passions.

I’ve created a daily schedule that prescribes how I focus my time throughout the day, every day. I’ve never been a fan of structure, so I allow myself some flexibility, but having time set aside each day for certain tasks, both business-related and personal, keeps me focused. The flexibility works for me. By having a daily schedule, I can be confident about not taking time to read and respond to email in the morning when I should be focusing on reading and writing, for example.

I can also set aside time for personal activities I want to encourage myself to do, like getting into shape and increasing my photography skills. This will become more important if and when I add layers of different business responsibilities above what I’ve been doing for the past year.

In a few weeks, I’ll revisit the schedule and my progress with the new time organization to see if I’ve been able to maintain the change and whether I can see the manifestation of benefits.

With this rescheduling, I decided it was worthwhile to outsource more of the tasks I don’t like doing. I probably should have done this more over the past few years, but I held back. I have already hired a cleaning service to visit every other week to handle the deep housecleaning I’m not interested in handling. I missed the opportunity to hire an assistant — virtual or otherwise — when the business’s cash flow allowed me to do so, but I may return to that in the future. The change I made this week was to explore ordering my groceries.

For no extra money assuming I am able to continue to use coupons, I can order my groceries online and have them shipped via the Peapod service. I’ve avoided this for years. After all, the grocery store is in walking distance from where I live. Given the fact I live alone, my needs for groceries are not many. I’m looking to eat healthier, though, and my expenses might shift further away from eating out and more towards meals at home. Grocery delivery is significantly more convenient simply because I don’t need to take time away from working or more enjoyable activities to wander around a grocery store. So even if I need to pay a $7 delivery fee, I find the convenience worthwhile.

My experience ordering groceries online

Because I shop with a grocery store loyalty card, ordering my groceries online was very easy. The website, Peapod, displayed my Stop & Shop purchases automatically, and I could choose from my previous purchases and browse the virtual aisles, adding more groceries to my virtual shopping cart. Using printed coupons is the only drawback, you simply need to present the coupons when the delivery arrives for credit. Delivery was surprisingly flexible; I was able to choose a window of time the morning after I placed the order, and I was able to change or add to my order for several hours after I first finalized it.

Delivery was on time, though I wouldn’t consider the driver to be that friendly. He brought in the bags of groceries and placed them in the kitchen for me. I had already added his tip when I placed the order, so there was nothing left to do but accept the receipt or invoice and allow him to rush out the door to his next delivery.

The only drawback I’ve discovered so far is that the deli meats seem to only be available in larger portions than I need. My challenge will be to consume these before they go bad, but after this first attempt I can change my deli meat strategy for the next delivery. As far as items I prefer to hand-pick in the store, there is a concern that what I receive through delivery might not be as good or as fresh. I did notice that the sell-by date on the milk had passed, but milk is good beyond the sell-by date. I sent an email to Peapod about the issue. All other items seemed just as good as what I might have selected for myself in the store.

If you live in a city like New York, grocery shopping can be more than just inconvenient, and delivery services have been standard for a while. Living in a location like mine, it’s a little more unexpected. I’ve avoided grocery delivery because I didn’t want to feel lazy; after all, I can almost see the grocery store from my apartment. Also, I shop only for myself, so my visits to the store are infrequent. Yet, I still manage to fill five or six large bags and need extra trips from the car to carry larger items. After one delivery, though, I don’t see myself going back to traditional grocery shopping, particularly if I can keep eliminating the delivery fee.

Have you ever used a grocery delivery service? Is a service like this worthwhile for you?

Photo: SodanieChea

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Ebates Review

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There is more to maximizing cash back than just using the right rewards credit cards. Many card issuers also offer marketplaces or online shopping portals where, if you use your appropriately branded credit card, you can earn 1 percent to 7 percent cash back or more. That’s in addition to the 1 percent to 5 percent cash back credit ... Continue reading this article…

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Curb Your Consumerism

by Kelly Whalen

This article is presented by Kelly Whalen, Consumerism Commentary staff writer. The temptation to spend money is everywhere, especially during the holidays. There is something magical about lights glowing, soft Christmas music playing everywhere, and the hustle and bustle of the holiday season that seems to make money fly right out of everyone’s wallet. Whether ... Continue reading this article…

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Outlet Malls – Great Buy or Money Drain?

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Cost-Cutting Consumers Trade Down from Steak to Chicken

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Too Cheap for iPhone or Blackberry, But I Got My Mobile Web Access

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UPS Stealth Delivery

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Last week, I ordered some new high definition audio/video cables and an HDMI powered switch to prepare for the Blu-Ray player I’ll be receiving as I spend Christmas with my girlfriend’s family. I placed the order with MonoPrice.com, and I expected the delivery yesterday. As I normally do, often without thinking, I directed the cables ... Continue reading this article…

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PriceProtectr Just Saved My Girlfriend $100

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Wall Street Journal Podcast: Finding Deals Online

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Last Friday, the first portion of my latest interview with the Wall Street Journal Tech News Briefing E-Report was published for podcast listeners. Today, the second half of my rambling was broadcast, this time about finding deals online. Here are the time stamps relevant to the interview. 07:10 E-Report introduction 07:25 Best place to find ... Continue reading this article…

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Homemade gifts can be so much more than the sum of their parts, which makes them a great frugal gift option. They are redolent of effort, of “I thought of you all year and worked on this for you” versus “I realized I needed a gift for you ten minutes ago and picked this up ... Continue reading this article…

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Wall Street Journal Podcast: Safe and Smart Online Shopping

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