Survey: Americans Waiting Until After Election To Shop For Holidays

Whether it’s because of anxiety due to the upcoming presidential and congressional elections or a stubborn refusal to even think about winter holidays before Halloween, Americans are reportedly waiting until after the election is over to begin their shopping. No, they’re not waiting until after Thanksgiving: that would be silly.

That’s according to a consumer survey by the National Retail Federation, which puts planned spending per person at $935.58. That includes food, decorations, gifts, and cards for Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa.

The president and CEO of the NRF, Matthew Shay, notes that advertising spots that would normally be full of retailers preparing consumers to think about consuming are full of candidate ads preparing voters to think about voting.

“Once the election has passed, we anticipate consumers will pull themselves out of the election doldrums and into the holiday spirit,” he reassured retailers in a statement.

By the way, over half (58%) of people polled plan to use the holiday shopping frenzy to buy something for themselves, spending an average of $139.61 per person.

After 60 Days, What Has The “Robocall Strike Force” Accomplished?

Two months ago, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson accepted the challenge of FCC Chair Tom Wheeler to head up an industry-led “Strike Force” to finally do something meaningful to curb unwanted, often illegal, robocalls, and to give consumers free tools they can use to try to block these calls. The team was given 60 days to get this ship headed in the right direction, and now that time has passed a verdict is in: Much was accomplished, but consumers still don’t have the tools they need.

“A job well-planned is a job half-done,” noted FCC Chair Tom Wheeler at yesterday’s review of the Strike Force’s 60-day report [PDF], while simultaneously commending the team — which includes representatives from all the major wireless, broadband, and bandwidth providers — for grinding out 100 meetings over the course of just two months.

“I recognize that you all have day jobs,” said Wheeler, who later referenced AT&T’s recently announced merger with Time Warner Inc. by joking with Stephenson that “You haven’t stopped your day job, it seems.”

When the Strike Force launched, it was tasked with three main goals: develop robust call-blocking tools for consumers; speed up implementation of next-generation caller ID authentication; and develop a “Do Not Originate” list that can be used to stop certain suspicious calls closer to the source.

While the Strike Force made progress in all three areas, both the industry and the FCC acknowledged that much work still needs to be done.

For example, while the team did begin work on a network-to-device information sharing framework that could ultimately improve call-blocking technology, it hasn’t given a deadline for completing this project.

Likewise, the Strike Force worked with the FCC on this consumer outreach page on FCC.gov that links to call-blocking information for several providers and devices, the companies themselves have largely yet to implement free tools for their customers to use. And, as our partners at Consumer Reports pointed out this week, the call-blocking services offered by providers are not created equal.

It’s a similar story on the back end, where the Strike Force was able to to expedite development of new caller ID standards that would make it more difficult for scammers to use spoofing technology to cloak their location. While the team committed to rollout milestones for these standards, Chair Wheeler expressed concerns that consumers will still be left having to deal with scammy robocalls.

“There will be no consumer impact until those standards are implemented,” said Wheeler, who called on all the companies involved to commit to continuing to exceed the current targets for implementing these upgrades.

One definite bright spot in the Strike Force report was the apparent success of a limited test of a “Do Not Originate” list using numbers that actually belong to the Internal Revenue Service. The IRS is a favorite for scammers who want to trick victims into believing they owe back taxes. But the Strike Force says that by blocking calls from IRS numbers that are not used to make outgoing calls, it demonstrated a significant decrease in IRS-related scam complaints.

“It is now time to expand that trial, to get it off of trial status, make it the real deal — to expand the number of numbers, and to expand the number of carriers,” declared Wheeler. “There is no reason why that can’t start happening today.”

Recovery Fees?

As we showed in our line-by-line breakdowns of cable and broadband bills, these companies love to charge “recovery” fees to ostensibly get back some of the money they spend complying with federal regulations.

The Strike Force report (see p. 38 of the PDF linked above) makes the case for providers to recoup robocall-related expenses through a variety of possible avenues. Congress could just give them this money; or they could offer basic call-blocking services for free but charge for access to a premium tier that would offer more benefits; or a “small surcharge or fee… applied to the customer’s monthly bill for the entire customer base.”

Wheeler did not appear terribly thrilled with these suggestions.

“Let me be the first to say that the FCC will look to see how we can reduce costs, but stopping unwanted calls is as much a business expense as marketing and billing,” he explained. “Providing a quality service is a cost of doing business.”

No Handoffs

The report makes mention of “handoffs” to standards bodies or to trade groups like US Telecom who would handle the next steps in the various development and deployment process. Again, this seemed to run Wheeler the wrong way.

“There is no handoff,” he told the Strike Force. “This is not out-of-sight, out-of-mind. These organizations work for the people in this room, and it is the people in this room who must continue the responsibility of making sure that the kind of plan that has been laid out is in fact delivered upon.”

To that end, Stephenson and Wheeler agreed to reconvene the Strike Force for a sequel in six months “so that we can look at exactly what has happened. Are we on the timetable, achieving the deliverables that this group has laid out?”

The goal, said Wheeler is for consumers to have “something that is actually happening, not something that is being talked about.”

“Half A Loaf”

Our colleagues at Consumers Union, whose End Robocalls campaign has garnered hundreds of thousands of signatures from people looking for free call-blocking tools now, concurs with the notion that the Strike Force’s work is far from finished.

“This latest plan is half a loaf, if that,” said Maureen Mahoney, policy analyst for Consumers Union. “These efforts are aimed at getting better solutions in the future, but consumers need relief now. The phone companies should take immediate action by offering their customers the best call-blocking protection currently available.”

Report: Amazon To Eventually Open As Many As 2,000 Grocery Stores

Earlier this month, all-powerful “sources familiar with the matter” claimed that Amazon was on the verge of opening bricks-and-mortar convenience stores and offering curbside pickup. Now, a new report indicates that the e-tailer plans to start small, opening 20 physical grocery stores over the next two years, but ultimately expects to have thousands of stores nationwide.

Business Insider, citing documents from Amazon, reports that the e-commerce giant will open up to 2,000 grocery store locations over the next decade as part of its plan to enter the physical grocery market.

The plan would kick off with a 20-location pilot program in Seattle, Miami, New York, and other large cities by the end of 2018.

While the pilot program would focus on convenience and providing customers with groceries, obviously, the locations would take on two distinct variations: one would be “click-and-collect” for online orders and the other would be traditional grocery stores.

The drive-in stores would likely be around 10,000 square feet, while the traditional stores would be just that, traditional, at 30,000 square feet, the documents state.

Eventually, Amazon could combine the two store types, adding a pickup option to the larger stores.

It’s unclear just who would use the stores. For example, Business Insider reports that Amazon could operate the locations as membership-only retailers — much like its $15/month Fresh delivery service or $99/year Prime membership service.

Previous reports indicated that the stores would only be available to members of Amazon’s Fresh subscription service.

By charging a membership fee, Business Insider suggest, Amazon could offset some of the costs of operating physical stores.

Internal Amazon documents reveal a vision of up to 2,000 grocery stores across the US [Business Insider]

T-Mobile Wants To Subsidize Your Google Pixel, Sort Of

You may remember that T-Mobile was the carrier that pushed the rest of the wireless industry into selling phones without traditional contracts, but with interest-free installment plans. Now, though, T-Mobile wants to take advantage of the publicity surrounding Google’s Pixel phone and… subsidize it for you. Sort of.

The Pixel, you may recall, is available two ways. You can buy it from Verizon, and you’ll see Verizon advertising the phone as an “exclusive,” but that just means that Verizon is the only carrier that sells it. You can also buy an unlocked version directly from Google, which you can use with any carrier, including Verizon.

T-Mobile’s plan is to remind everyone that the Pixel isn’t a Verizon exclusive by giving customers bill credits amounting to $325, half of the cost of the 32 GB version of the phone.

The catch, of course, is that you have to stay with T-Mobile for 24 months, since the bill credit is applied to your account monthly. Other catches are that you have to turn in your Pixel receipt within 30 days of purchase, and that you have to be a first-time purchaser of the Pixel. T-Mobile hasn’t said how long the promotion will last.

CEO John Legere is annoyed at the competition, as usual, pointing out the problem with Verizon’s advertising. “Don’t let the ‘exclusive’ advertisements fool you,” he said in a statement along with the promotion announcement, “the Pixel phone is tested and proven to be fantastic on our lightning fast network, and we want to help you get the best of both worlds!”

Is T-Mobile trying to gain new customers here, or just troll Verizon and make sure that reminders that the phone isn’t exclusive are in the news? Maybe it’s both.