Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Maybe We Should Follow His Lead...

Now here's a guy who knows his priorities during a recession.

(picture taken at Astor Place in NYC)

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Hell is Going Out of Business

T-shirt hell, that is.  

Even if you've never been on the website, which is infamous for its controversial t-shirts, you've still probably seen the shirts floating around- whether it was the "Talk Nerdy To Me" wifebeater on your weird roommate's ex-boyfriend, the "I'm the Guy Who Married Britney" hoodie in the fashion section of US Weekly, or the best selling "I'm What Willis Was Talkin' 'Bout" t-shirt that was featured on Scrubs in 2004. 

Since June of 2001, owner Sunshine Megatron (don't ask) has sold thousands of t-shirts ranging from slightly offensive, to mildly humorous, to highly controversial. In his eight years of selling shirts, Mr. Megatron has received thousands of hate emails, cease and desists from several celebrity targets (Rick James, the Olsen Twins, and Christopher Reeves being just a sample), and even survived a possible poison attempt in 2005. And through all that, he kept doing what he did best: pissing people off through the magic of controversial satire. 

But on January 29, Megatron announced that he would shut down his website and company on February 10. His reason? "I just don't feel like dealing with idiots anymore."  It was a reference to the thousands of hate letters that are sent to the company each week, many containing death threats.  In the announcement, Megatron cited the safety of his employees as his chief concern, and the main reason behind "not pushing the envelope so much anymore... I can't say I feel good about having caved in." While the current economic recession wasn't the main factor behind his decision, he admitted that "the recent dip in sales certainly makes the idea easier to accept, even though we still sell almost 3,000 shirts a week."

And so began the last two weeks. Then, due to overwhelming response, Megatron extended the final day to February 16th  (and even I was considering buying a long time favorite). 

And so the last day of the sale, I logged on to buy my t-shirt- and read a new announcement from one of the shrewdest businessmen of the recession.  Long story short, Megatron pulled a Beanie Baby/Celine Dion- faking going out of business to increase sales in the short run.  And it worked. Oh, did it work:

"And just so I make this clear, I haven't decided to keep T-Shirt Hell going because of the tens of thousands of supportive emails we received or because of the press and sales we generated over the last 3 weeks (nearly 100,000 shirts sold). We were never...ever...leaving in the first place. Let's just call it tough love.  Sometimes you need to kick your loved ones in the assholes to get them to satisfy their need for awesome t-shirts (and to fill my bank account.)

Let's call it my own personal stimulus package. In 3 weeks, I've done EXACTLY what is needed to stimulate any economy... and that is to get people to open their wallets. Not only did the last 3 weeks save jobs at T-Shirt Hell, they've opened up a whole new world to people who had never bought our shirts until now."

Yea, he duped us. He also singlehandedly saved his company through the application of one of the simplest rules of business: supply and demand.  Cut the supply, and the demand grows.

Touche, Sunshine Megatron. Touche. Maybe we need you on Wall Street.

7-Day Cruise for $499? (Shiver me timbers!)

Always wanted to go on an Alaskan cruise? Now may just be the perfect time.  Today's New York Times included an excellent article on reduced rates for international cruises.

...if only I had seen this before I made spring break plans. 

Definitely worth checking out if you're looking for a relaxing, post graduation vacation!

As Nation’s First Gay Bookstore Closes, Longtime Manager Looks to the Future

At first glance, the Oscar Wilde has everything you’d expect from a gay bookstore: bawdy calendars and prideful bumper stickers, all six seasons of the L Word on DVD, and, of course, the complete works of David Sedaris. Outside, a rainbow flag splashes color against the neutral brownstone entrance, a welcome mat of sorts for the erudite gay population of the West Village.

As the nation’s first- and only- gay and lesbian bookstore, the Oscar Wilde is a landmark, a haven, and a living piece of history- all crowded in a space no larger than the average studio apartment.

But not for much longer. On February 3, citing poor sales and double-digit losses, storeowner Kim Brinster publicly announced plans to close the Oscar Wilde. On March 29th, the economic recession will claim another victim. And when the Oscar Wilde goes down, store manager Cecilia Martin is going with it.

Martin, a 39-year-old Michigan native, has worked at the bookstore for over six years and managed for the past three. She first heard of the store years ago, long before moving to the city in 1995.

“I remember when I first visited New York, this was one of the first places I came to visit,” Martin says.

After her move, Martin would occasionally frequent the store during her ten-year career as an off-Broadway stage manager.

“I was working on a show and I came in here to buy a book. I needed another part time job, and I just wanted something different, to meet people in the gay community,” said Martin. “I asked them if they were hiring and they were!”

Six years later, Martin is a striking offset to the store’s natural flamboyancy- tall, thin, and conservatively dressed, with a large rainbow watch adorning her wrist. Since Brinster’s announcement- and its subsequent front-page coverage by the New York Times website- the store is busier than it’s been in months, yet Martin handles the continual calls and order requests with clipped efficiency.

“I have a list of all the people I have to call back for interviews,” Martin says, smiling apologetically as she attends to a ringing phone.

In between phone calls, Martin lists her efforts to keep the store afloat. Along with Brinster, she’s tried book clubs, an online shopping source, and “wine and sign” nights with some of the gay community’s most prominent authors: Ann Bannon, Edmund White, and Chris Bram. She penned a weekly email to hundreds of subscribers with news updates, as well as a monthly newsletter informing loyal clients of new authors and seasonal discounts. All of this, she admits, for the love of her job, the store, and her passion for books.

"I love my job, and I love coming to work everyday. I’m mourning, not only for myself but for the community. This is the last gay and lesbian bookstore in New York. It’s been here for 41 years.”

Yet Martin admits it’s a loss she sensed was coming.

“I remember seeing a news article that people were amazed by the economy and the crisis, but retailers knew it [was coming] a year ago,” Martin said. “We started to see that things had slowed down.”

“This year was the worst Christmas ever,” Martin adds. “If you look at the month as a whole, it was just one of the worst months of the year.”

This is not the first time the bookstore has had its head on the chopping block. In 2003, then owner Larry Lingle admitted he could no longer afford to keep the store open- and was bought out by Deacon Maccubin, owner of Lamba Rising Bookstores in Washington in the eleventh hour. Is Martin hoping for another last minute pardon?

“There’s always that glimmer of hope that there’s someone out there who has millions of dollars to spend and wants to buy a quirky little bookstore in a brownstone,” Martin says. “I think it would take a miracle, but you never know. Miracles do happen.”

But in case it doesn’t, Martin has a backup plan. She’s getting her MLS at Queens College in library science, and hoping for a job that keeps her working among her passion- literature. But libraries are also suffering, she admits, and finding another job might be difficult.

“I’m going to be like everyone else,” says Martin. “I’m going to be out there looking and hoping for something.”

Chanel Cuts Costs With Paper Headdresses

Talk about being creative: in Chanel's January Couture show, renowned hairstylist Katsuya Kamo saved the fashion company thousands of dollars by creating this year's line of headresses... with paper.

Half a dozen helpers, three weeks, and two packets of 11 x 17 office paper later, and viola! Kamo's designs were ready for the runway. These are a few of the designs that Kamo came up with. They're amazing... and a far cry away from the paper hats I remember making as a kid.

Lily Allen Offers New Album for $3.99 On

Say what you like about Lily Allen (I'm talking to you, Perez) but the singer/songwriter knows how to work it in a financial crunch.  To promote her sophomore album, the already critically acclaimed "It's Not Me, It's You," the singer has teamed up with Amazon to offer the album for the low, low price of $3.99- at least for the first week of sales.

The promotion, which was supposed to end on February 16th, offers an MP3 of the hit album that downloads directly to your iTunes (once you've installed the Amazon MP3 downloader- both Mac and PC compatible).  Although the deal was supposed to end yesterday, a quick glance on Amazon showed the album still being sold at the bargain price, so do yourself a favor and buy it while the going's good. I know, it's $3.99 more than a pirated version- but come on. Guaranteed perfect quality and no chances of being rickrolled

Personally, I think it's a great idea.  It's pretty hard to shell out $10 for an album on iTunes and even harder to drop $20 on a hard copy at Virgin, leading even the most morally upright of us to BitTorrent and Limewire for our musical needs and wants.  But at just under 4 bucks, Allen's making it a lot easier for college students to say yes to legal music- even if it's just for a week at a time.

That's not the only way Lily's been promoting her album- she also had a free show at the Bowery Ballroom on February 10th.  If you missed it, she's also playing for free in Tokyo and London later this month... let me know how it was.

To listen to more of Lily's music, check out her myspace or the official music video to her hit single "The Fear" on youtube.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Would You Like Foam With That? Starbucks to Introduce Value Meals

In response to floundering sales and an increasingly competitive market, Starbucks recently announced plans to introduce a new line of "value meal" style breakfast pairings beginning March 3rd. 

Meal options include a tall (small in Starbuckese) latte with oatmeal or coffee cake, or a tall drip coffee paired with a variety of breakfast sandwiches. The meals will cost $3.95 and save customers an average of $1.20.

But that's not all- starting today, Starbucks has launched a campaign to promote their latest attempt to attract recession minded penny pinches- instant coffee packets.

Called Via, the Ready Brew Instant Coffee packets sell for under $1 a piece and are being tested in Chicago and Seattle markets.  They're available in two flavors- Columbia, a medium blend, and Italian Roast, an extra bold blend for more experienced drinkers. 

Whether these efforts will save the staggering company remains to be seen, but either way, it's a move in the right direction for the coffee giant, who reported record losses in the last fiscal quarter. 

As a former Starbucks barista, I can't help but feel a little defensive about this topic.  Sure, an iced quad venti vanilla soy latte might set you back $5 (and a few hundred calories), but I tend to agree with CEO Howard Schultz's recent statement regarding "misperceptions about affordability." If you're anything like my father- who shudders at the idea of flavored syrups, rolls his eyes at multi-syllabled drink orders, and thinks the frappuccino is a new dance craze- you may be surprised at how affordable a plain old fashioned cup of coffee at Starbucks can be.  I made a few calls to the Big Four of Coffee (Starbucks, Dunkin' Donuts, McDonald's, and Burger King) to compare *prices of drip coffee in NYC stores, and the results were pretty surprising:

Tall (12 oz) $1.75
Grande (16 oz) $1.95
Venti (20 oz) $2.10

Dunkin' Donuts
Small (14 oz) $1.61
Medium: (16 oz) $1.94
Large (24 oz) $2.29

McDonald's (with taxes)
Small (12 oz) $1.40
Medium (16 oz) $1.61
Large (20 oz) $1.83

Burger King
Value (12 oz) $1.08
Medium (16 oz) $1.29 
Large (20 oz) $1.51

While Starbuck's prices are, on average, highest out of the four, I find it interesting that Dunkin Donut's and Starbuck's medium sized prices are within a penny of each other- and that the large at Dunkin is actually 19 cents more expensive than Starbucks.  (To be fair, Dunkin's large is 4 oz bigger. But do you really need a coffee the size of a Big Gulp?) 

Burger King definitely wins for best deal at just above a dollar for a small cup.  But I wonder if they freshly grind their coffee daily, brew a new pot every 30 minutes, use fair trade coffee, pay their workers above minimum wage, and provide workers with health insurance and stock options.... like Starbucks does. 

...Maybe it's worth it for those extra few cents a cup.

*All prices are without taxes unless otherwise noted.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

New York Dairy Farmers Face Sour Times

What are the two most turbulently priced liquids in America?

Gas, of course... and milk.

According to an article in the Times Union, dairy farmers in the tri-state area are seeing a 40% decline in milk and cheese prices from this time last year.

While newly budgeted families may appreciate the drastic drop in dairy prices (remember spending $4 on a gallon of milk during the summer?), many farmers worry what the decreased profit margin will mean for their farms.

According to Peter Gregg, the spokesman for the New York Farm Bureau, small farms are the most vulnerable, as they are most affected by changes in the economy.  Despite federal subsidies, many of these farms are finding the cost of producing milk more than the price per gallon.

To combat the issue, five U.S. Senators have lettered a request to the Federal Agriculture Department to increase the demand by buying more milk for government programs. 

Still, the fate of tri state farmers is uncertain. 

Recession: The Right Time to Start a Business?

I just read a refreshingly optimistic article on zwire which makes a compelling argument for starting a business during economically troubled times.  I've surmised the more important points from the article while including some ideas of my own...

1. Pick a sound market.  
That means no luxuries. Simply stated, now is not the time to invest in that fair trade, all natural Starbucks alternative you've always dreamed of doing.  Zwire writer Mark Miller suggests considering what he calls "recession proof" markets: anything related to health care, car insurance, etc. This rule has always applied to a sound business, but now more than ever, think: practical, universal, and necessary.  

2. Appeal to demand.
Everyday on my way to class, I pass a newly opened, eternally empty all vegan ice cream store with a thoroughly depressed manager behind the register.  If that store's not making it in the middle of the West Village in NYC, it's not gonna make anywhere.  It's always risky to invest in a niche market, and now is probably not the time to try.

3. Cut the Strings.
Consider self proprietorships- aka, starting a business solo.  It's more common then you think-according to the article, 85 percent of business tax returns are filed by companies with no employees. It means that you earn all the profits, control all the assets and... assume all losses and liability (see numbers 1 and 2). Instead of hiring employees, look for other small businesses offering the services you need and align with them.  A self proprietorship keeps overhead down and profits up- as long as you know what you're doing.

4. Know What You're Doing.
Have a great idea for home delivery of prescription medications? Do you have any experience? Connections? Marketability? No?  Stick with something you've got a handle on.

While helpful, all these rules can be applied in times of economic prosperity. In the other half of his article, Miller explains the specific advantages of starting a business during a recession:

1. Survival of the Fittest. 
We're seeing it everywhere-  businesses are failing. And when businesses fail, it means less competition, with greater opportunities for brand expansion for stronger companies.

2. Sale! Sale! Sale!
While it may be more difficult to get a loan for your business, suppliers are cutting prices on the raw materials, and service fees for website design, etc, can be found for a bargain.  Also, with the real estate market plunging, office space can be had for lower prices than ever before- even in the NYC.  

Miller makes some compelling points with his article, but I'm not sure I'd have the daring to begin a business in today's world. What do you think?

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Lighter Side...

I was about to write on the attempted suicide of a 90 year old woman whose home was foreclosed, but I thought that was a little intense for my first official posting. (Don't worry- she survived and was able to keep her home).

So instead, I sampled a quote from one of my favorite websites, a hilarious site where New Yorkers send in snippets of conversations they've overheard on the street.  The conversations are then posted online (along with an amusing headline).  This one emulates my feelings exactly on my impending graduation...

New Yorkers Love a Game of "So You Think You Have Problems?"
Screaming Child: Mommy, I want to go home!
Disgruntled Employee: You think you have problems?! Try graduating from art college in the middle of a recession! Then you can cry!
--H&M Store

And you'd be surprised how often panhandlers can be counted on for a laugh:

Hobo on subway to man in suit: Spare change? Anyone? Spare change for the homeless? You look like you worked for Lehman Brothers, you're excused.
--51st St


In case you haven't heard, the economy has entered the seventh circle of hell.

And everyone has their ways of dealing with it.  The Girl Scouts of America have recently announced plans to remove a small number of cookies from each box to combat higher prices on raw materials and transportation costs.  My best friend's pot dealer is currently offering a "recession special" on juicy fruit- the leaf, not the gum. (no link for that one. You'll have to take my word on it.) Thank God we have celebrities like Mary Kate Olsen to look at the bright side. Miss Olsen was recently overheard to say in a Barney's that the recession was "sad....but at least they are having good sales!" 

Everybody- except perhaps Miss Olsen- is hurting. It seems like a day can't go by without more news of corporate liquidations, nefarious CEOs, and ineffective politicians.  We are, quite literally,  saturated in bad news.

...So why write a blog about it?  

I'm tired of the same news angle.  We all know about the business liquidations, the plunging stock market, and our mounting debt.  Personally, I'd like to find out more about companies and individuals who are adapting their lives and businesses to the current economic crisis. What are they doing that's different?  And have they been successful? 

I'd love to get some interactive feedback on this blog. I'd love to hear what your situation is and how this economy has effected you. And in the meantime, I'll be posting all the true stories I can find- whether they're funny, inspirational, or tragic- about how everyone from the average Americans to the 7 figure businessman is surviving the worst recession since the Great Depression.

~Emily Leonard