Monday, January 31, 2011

I'll Soft Drink To That - Eventually

I will admit that I eat out a large percentage of the time, which is generally not the case for people so in to saving money. While I certainly understand that restaurants are in business to make money, it’s the drinks that are the big issue. And it is getting worse across the board, especially when it comes to soft drinks.

We as consumers should not be allowing so many restaurants, including many of the fast food establishments, to continue to get away with this. My pointing it out to wait staff and order takers, who are not the ones making these decisions, does not help. We all need to begin to point this out to management and to the decision makers.

Part of the problem is that hardly anyone has questioned why soft drink prices at restaurants have risen so much over the past couple of years even though prices have held steady at the retail level during the same time. Now, it’s time to start.

Last week, I wrote the following via e-mail, to Applebee’s, Chili’s, and Denny’s, to get this started. These are just 3 of the chains charging at least $1.50 for a mere soft drink:

+ + + + + + + + + +
This is not just a ( Denny’s, Applebee’s, Chili’s ) matter. The price of your soft drinks has risen significantly over recent months, and it appears to be without justification.

I can still purchase a six-pack of the drinks you sell for around $1.50 paying retail price for 72 ounces of the soft drink beverages of my choice. That breaks down to about 25 cents per can. Again, at the retail price. As I figure it, allowing for double the markup at the wholesale level, a 12 ounce soft drink at your restaurant should be priced around 40 cents. More realistically, this would put a 16 oz. serving around 50 cents. There is absolutely no reason to gouge patrons for more than the price of a 6-pack for just one serving.

If your base cost for these beverages is above that, even though I am not an expert in wholesale food and beverage, it would mean that your people are not buying efficiently at that level.

While I’m sure you would respond that refills are free, I take issue with that. Your customers are being charged for more than the price of a 6-pack, meaning that the vast majority are forced to pay higher than retail for one or more additional servings they may not want.

My suggestion is to go with a 12 to 16 ounce serving in the 40 to 50 cents range, while providing the menu option of with free refills in the 75 to 85 cents range with any meal.

This is certainly a more viable option for patrons than going with tap water and not purchasing any of the soft drinks on the menu at current pricing. In addition, making this change in soft drink prices would allow many of us the ability to add a dessert, leave a larger gratuity to support the wait staff, and ultimately return more often for full meals. Otherwise, the wait staff would suffer in the long run as more people use carry-out service in order to have their soft drinks at a reasonable price.

May I hear from you on this?

+ + + + + + + +

You are welcome to use this e-mail yourself, and certainly to take the points it expresses to any and every appropriate restaurant’s management if you agree.

Since this is not a marketing forum, I will only say that of these 3 companies, I received one response that my “comments were forwarded” to the food and beverage people, an auto-response with a “ticket number”, and an “out of office” e-mail from the specific person I had as a contact name that she would be out of office until Jan. 28th (and did not follow up). However, after allowing 2 business days from my original correspondence, it is time to move on.

This type of situation is exactly what led to “The Frustrated Consumer”. Sure, I know there is no “explanation” for this, and that this is not a mistake in how these places “buy”. Nor is it only the 3 chains I sent that to. Yet, a big part of the problem is that literally millions of consumers are far too accepting of these prices. Maybe you never thought about it, or didn’t notice – until now.

Suppose you eat out an average of 4 times per week, and that is probably below average. Using that conservative estimate, you are NOW spending at least $220 per year more for that soda (or iced tea, etc.) while allowing these restaurants to charge approximately double the retail value. ($4 per week more times 52 weeks.) Double that if you eat out an average of 8 times per week, and that rises to $450 per year “extra”! Note that the latter amount is enough to purchase THREE HUNDRED more 6-packs of your favorite soft drink – at retail pricing!

Why am I making such a big deal about soft drinks? Because they are all the same. Some restaurants charge $2.00 for a hamburger, while others charge $10 or more. In the case of food items, the size and portions differ from one place to another. The toppings may or may not be included, along with a “side”. Some have better tasting food than others. Our decision regarding a future visit is based on how much we like the food, how it is priced, convenience, and other variables. In that regard, we do have a choice. The number of restaurants, whether fast food or slow food around the country, which have closed within the past two years, reflects this.

Yet, a Coke or Pepsi is the SAME drink whether in McDonald’s or the most expensive steak house in town. The same as you and I can purchase at retail prices for significantly less than the majority of restaurants are now charging us. We, the people, do not need to continue to put up with this.

We can make a difference. Those of you over the age of 40 probably remember Howard Johnson’s Restaurant, which was an almost national chain of family style restaurants. There were more than 1,000 of them from coast to coast in 1975. One of the long-standing comments was how that chain was charging for coffee refills, which at that time hardly any other restaurants would dare to do. By 1988, the entire chain had been sold (in 1985) and while many of the hotels remained, Howard Johnson’s Restaurant was gone. The people spoke.

Obviously, every restaurant and chain isn’t going to go away. And they don’t have to. Keep in mind that Howard Johnson’s showed the power of consumers. In this case, it is consumers who don’t plan on buying an extra three hundred 6-packs of soda.

For the past few years, I cut back on my personal soft drink consumption to reduce my caffeine intake, instead going with ice water at the majority of slow food restaurants. Now, I find myself just going with ice water even more often because of the soft drink prices. If thousands of consumers begin to do the same, and (more importantly) begin to complain about soft drink prices, maybe we can get something done. (Note that I mean ice water and not bottled water for purchase.)

Yet, reducing soft drink prices to a reasonable level is not the entire “battle”. We as consumers are also entitled to choices we are not getting. We as consumers are also far too accepting of this. A big percentage of soft drink customers (whether regular or diet) have a definite preference for Coke, Pepsi, or 7-Up products. Yet, we have no choice about that. You might prefer Pepsi, but your favorite restaurant only serves Coke. Why is that?

It’s not like you don’t have a choice of what type of salad dressing, cheese, toppings, or side orders. It’s not like you can only order one style of pizza, yet the somehow have the right to limit us to the only brand of soft drinks they carry. And at these outrageous prices?

It’s time for all of us to take a “hard” approach when it comes to soft drinks.

Monday, January 24, 2011

It's a Gas Gas Gas

If only there was reasonable pricing for gasoline. I'll get back to that. But I do need to address brand loyalty when it comes to filling up your car. Those who have it usually have brand loyalty for the wrong reasons.

Everybody is, justifiably, complaining about how much we are being gouged at the gas pump. Yet, many of those doing the complaining are standing there pumping gas at several cents higher per gallon than another brand has it for next door or right across the street.

We need to eliminate the "What's the difference at these prices?" mode. Chances are you drive the same routes during the week to work, school, shop, dine, visit family and friends, etc. Are you watching gas prices everywhere you go to keep track of which gas stations consistently have the lowest prices?

If not, you should be. You need to look at prices and apply it to your typical fill-up. For the sake of example, suppose you put in an average of 10 gallons on your weekly visit to the gas station.

You look across the street and now notice that the gas station over there is selling at 8 cents per gallon less. That would mean you are spending 80 cents MORE on this visit than you need to. If you do the math, you would find that this comes to over $41 MORE over the course of one year than you had to spend.

This is without using an SUV example of pumping 20 gallons per visit or paying ten cents more per gallon. You'd be overspending by more than $100 per year, and some people are doing just that.

Using either of the above examples, take the dollar amount (i.e. $41, $220) per week you could be overpaying. Next, look at the price of your typical fill-up under today's prices.

You'll find that you are probably wasting one entire fill-up over the course of the year while complaining about these prices.

In addition, one place where you live or work (or drive to) may be in a different county or state which, due to taxes, may have a lower average price. I know of several people who will drive up to 20 miles extra to take advantage of significant savings on a fill-up, but it has to make sense. There are areas where gas prices could vary by as much as 15 cents or more per gallon from one state to the next.

However, at these prices, the extra driving generally doesn't make sense. Your savings on a 15 gallon fill-up might only be about $2 - $3, but the extra 30 miles of driving take up on gallon (or more), which presently costs MORE than the attempted savings.

Believe it or not, my savings formula does not always mean that I automatically head for the lowest gas price in the area where I'm filling up. Fact is I very rarely do, and only use the "lesser brand" of gas as an indicator of if the price has gone up or down that day, and how close to that price I need to look for.

Most people don't believe me on this until they try it out. Many cars actually do perform better using certain brands of gasoline. But it is NOT one brand fits all. In a multi-car household, each car may have its own "best gas".

It's not only out of fear that the cheaper "off brand" gas isn't as strong and could impact the performance level of the vehicle. That is something to consider. I am among those who has had truly reliable auto mechanics show me how "cheap gas" has negatively impacted the car's performance. This is often another reason to avoid the "off brand", however. If you save it in gas money but spend it back and then some in repair and/or maintenance costs, you aren't really saving. This is a factor with the majority of vehicles.

When I purchase another car (I won't say new car because I have purchased a grand total of 3 "new" cars during the 40 years I have been driving.), I will try a few brands of gas, evaluate the performance, and then develop a brand loyalty which seems best for my car.

Then, it becomes a matter of finding the lowest priced (name of brand) station within the area(s) I buy gas at. Currently, gas is lower priced near where I live than where I work or where I go to visit family members, so I constantly monitor which of the 3 gas stations of that brand within 2 miles of home have the better price. Yes, it varies. I'll never understand why the same brand of gas in the same zip code can have up to a 3 cent per gallon variation, but it does so I keep tabs on it. Significantly, I have purchased from all 3 of those gas stations within the past 2 months as the prices between them all varies. One of them tends to have the lowest of the 3 the most, but not always. (I won't say which brand since I can't endorse any at these prices.)

This brand has generally been available within 2 or 3 cents of the lowball brand, and even I have no trouble with an additional 25 or 30 cents per purchase, since the car will make up for it on maintenance costs.

The brand I generally used was arrived at by testing a few brands for mileage in the car I currently own. I always zero out the trip odometer when I fill up so that I can better gauge the distance and mileage on a couple of tanks and take it from there.

Comparing brands of gas is easier than you think. Ideally, you should rotate among those you would consider in the early going. The best comparison is testing brands under the same driving conditions.

There are some people who think I'm being ridiculous about this and that "all name brand gas is the same". But they were not with me years ago when I made a one day road trip from Chicago to Detroit (about 300 miles each way). I made it to my Detroit area destination and part of the way back to Chicago on one tank of gas. Being down to empty, I filled up with at a Shell station for most of my return trip home. Imagine my disgust when I had to stop for gas in order to make it home (according to the number of gallons I took, I knew that for a fact) on the same trip!

Months later, I ran out of gas on another road trip, on which I had used Shell purchased in a different state. Needless to say, that car and others since never used Shell. I have put Shell in the car I have now, but it is no longer among the lower priced brands in my area.

Yet, if I had not been keeping track of brands, mileage, and pricing, I might still be among those people spending MORE per gallon and getting way less performance out of the car, thus costing me even more money at the gas pump.

Back to these unreasonable gas prices. There is nothing we can do but complain, and so far that hasn't helped, even with

Here is a question for us all to ask politicians, especially the ones who urge us all to "Buy American". I like to "Buy American" whenever the price and quality merit. So why is it that when the foreign oil companies jack up the prices even more for no reason that the American refineries must follow?

Let our politicians know that if they made sure that refined American oil and gas prices were at half of the price the foreign oil companies are charging THEN we would "Buy American". Ask them what they will do to make this happen for us.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Phone Carrier Improvements Because of a Football Game?

The phone carriers all weigh in about getting and being ready for the portable phone use by those at the Bears' NFC Championship Game this Sunday at Solider Field. Some carriers are adding improvements to handle all of the calls. And the reporter leaves it at that?

Since the reporter didn't ask the questions on the mind of us frustrated consumers, I will:

This is the final Bears game at Soldier Field until August, and they all sold out. Why are these companies waiting until the final game to address the usage concerns?

Why only Soldier Field for one afternoon and not downtown and major pedestrian locations where significant usage is an issue on a regular basis?

How come several carriers just announced price increases when it takes a special event to steer them toward "being ready"?

For us consumers:

Have you asked YOUR carrier about this yet?

If you are not attending the game on Sunday, will you let your carrier know if you have any problems?

Maybe if you do, they will hear us NOW.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


I despise paying to park a car. Especially at these ripoff prices. The only exception is some parking meters, those few that remain reasonably priced, which to me is 25 cents an hour for up to 8 hours, and are within ¼ block of my primary destination. A business or restaurant that doesn’t offer free parking has to work even harder to even have a chance at my business.

If a restaurant “can’t" offer us free parking, then it’s up to them to make it worth my while. If I am asked to pay $5 to park so I can eat there, they should take off $5 from the total cost of my meal or visit. Then, it is really FREE parking, like it should be, since it would mean that the cost to park was not extra for me. Why should it be your problem as a patron if they can’t provide free parking?

Same with shopping centers that pull the “2 hours free with a purchase” crap. I should never be put in the position to either have to make a purchase or else pay to park to visit the businesses there. We should all be insulted by tenant stores all telling us “It will cost you to come here if you don’t purchase anything”. My response is “It will cost YOU potential business because you gave me that ultimatum. I won’t take that risk.”

Now, I don't condone ripping anyone off. However, charging me to park for a shopping center fits in that same category. At one such shopping center in California, a thoughtful patron provided me with a great idea. He obviously had been parked there for more than the 2 hours of "free" parking with a purchase in certain store. So he walked out to the garage entrance, took a fresh time-stamped ticket, and went back to one of the stores to have his "fresh" ticket stamped. Some will say what the guy did was not legal or ethical. Actually, it wasn't. But being charged to park to visit those businesses isn't ethical to me. Frankly, I would have hired the guy as an executive!

No way I’ll pay to park to see a movie. I’m sorry that so many people do so without thinking twice. Whatever the movie, it is playing somewhere else, and I’ll go see it where I can park for free, like it should be. Especially with the annual increases in the price of movies for the same entertainment we were getting at lower prices.

It so happens that I enjoy walking almost as much as saving money. It’s even better when you combine the two. In the vast majority of cases, there is free parking, even if it’s a few blocks away. Over the years, I have commented that the cost of the extra pair of shoes I might need because of the miles I walk to save on parking costs still save me a lot of money. I contend that I save at least $1,000 per year by doing what I do to avoid paying for parking. It could be a lot more. So as of Jan. 1, 2011, I’m keeping track on a daily and weekly basis of exactly how much I save by not paying to park. I’ll be passing that along each month.

However, it is so much more than being ripped off for parking fees when shopping or eating. For some people, it’s for getting to and from work. For almost everyone, it is the outrageous cost of parking for entertainment and sports events. Given the cost of owning a car and especially for gas to keep it running, I don’t see any reason why we should have to pay additional to NOT be in or using our car.

Sorry, but parking for customers should be part of doing business. What would you say if an establishment asked you for extra money to cover their electric bill for the month? Or the computer software they use to process your order? You would balk at this (hopefully) because it is a cost of them doing business. Then can you tell me why having a place for customers or patrons to park (at no cost to them) is any different? Why is this our problem?

Of course, I enjoy attending events, and often have to go to where there is no other option in terms of having to pay an outrageous amount to park, especially in the big cities. What you need to do is to weigh your options. The big cities also have public transportation and other options.

For example, I recently took my girlfriend to an event near downtown Chicago. I already paid a lot of money for the 2 tickets, which to me should have covered parking and then some. But it did not. The bastards were charging $20 to park in an outside parking lot (no protection from the weather or conditions) for less than 3 hours. At this location, the free parking was at least 2 miles away, and on a cold night that’s too far. We got to the event because we took the L train from about 10 minutes away. I parked FREE near the train station. Unfortunately, it cost $2.25 per person per trip, which made for a $9 round trip. That still stinks to spend so much traveling to and from an event I already paid a lot of money for.

Here’s how I look at doing that. We did not have to sit in traffic, and suffer the humiliation of waiting in a line to pay stinkin’ $20 to park in an outside lot before the show. Instead, we exited the train station about ¼ block away (maybe the same distance if not closer than the paying lot) and walked right into the venue. After the show, we left the venue and were back on the train before the people who spent all of that money on parking could get out of the row they were stuck parking in. I know we got back home much faster by doing this. More importantly, even at the high sum of $9 for our transportation, I SAVED $11 (and the extra time) by doing this.

This is how you need to think it through regarding avoiding event parking. If there are 4 of you going, splitting a cab 2 or 4 ways from a point where you can park for free a couple miles away can save you at least $10. And so it goes. Always explore every option.

I could see charging maybe $1 for parking at venues for big events, such as sports or concerts, but with conditions. The few thousand dollars collected must go toward making paying to park there a true convenience. (Not to walk over puddles, breathe exhaust fumes, and have to back up into a long line of cars waiting to get out of the aisle, burning up my expensive gas and taking up several minutes of my valuable time.) Those conditions are that they have people to keep watch over the parked cars during the event, and are around after to direct traffic out of the lot in an efficient manner.

One more thing to keep in mind. The next biggest ripoff is when communities have the nerve to charge people to park at the train station. This is an absolute outrage. The reason I am taking the train is so that I don’t have to pay to park. So why would I then pay to park to take the train?

As you can imagine, I have done my research in my area, and advise you to do the same. Some communities go as far as to restrict parking surrounding the train station to try and stick you with paying them to park. Forget it! If you can’t find free unrestricted parking within a few minutes walking time of the train station, try a different train station location. I am sometimes stuck with this. I either park in a housing development about 2 blocks further (beyond the restricted area), or drive to a different train station with even more unrestricted free parking. You will find a community that WANTS possible customers for its businesses, and if people are walking the area and parked free with no restrictions, it gives them the opportunity to eat or shop there as well as take the train.

When I do this for the train, I’m saving $1.50 in train station parking costs each time. Before you dismiss me as being “cheap beyond belief”, here is how to look at it. If I save this $1.50 per day an average of 4 times per week (out of a 5 day work week) and do this 50 weeks out of the year, right there I save at least $300 per year by not paying to park for the train.

That is $300 without counting parking money saved on shopping, restaurants, movies, concerts, festivals, and sports events. Start keeping track of what it costs to park everywhere you go. Even if you only save an average of $20 per week every week (and that’s less than $3 every day!), you will save over $1,000 each year. That’s how I can afford to go to the events I go to!

It's time for people to speak up about this. If there are not complaints, this practice will continue and likely get worse. I'm already paying a ton of money to own, operate, and insure my car. I shouldn't have to pay a fortune to NOT be using it.

Introducing The Frustrated Consumer

Some people call me “cheap”, but others call me smart. It’s all because I don’t want to pay any more than I have to, no matter what it is. After years of telling a few people here and there, it’s time to share. Out of this is born “The Frustrated Consumer”.

It will be a part of the web site to provide fresh content and insight for people who love saving money and doing the research it takes to do so. There is always money to be saved. You need to question every purchase, no matter how small it may be.

It also helps to have the nerve to ask questions or make seemingly innocent comments when at retailers, restaurants, or wherever you make purchases. In my opinion, a huge part of the reason that we all pay too much for a lot of what we purchase is because people are way too willing to accept the terms and conditions and not ask these questions.

Hopefully, over the days, weeks, and months to come I will help people get over the fear of speaking out and of making a thorough effort to save money. It can be a lot more than saving $5 at the grocery store because you had coupons. That’s only the beginning.