The 24/7 Work Week

The 24/7 work weekIf you’re thinking that work demands are increasingly encroaching on your life at home … you’re not alone.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics in survey results released earlier this summer, more Americans are using their weekends to get more done on the job. The results came from a survey that involved interviews with ~13,200 people over the age of 15.

Non-self-employed persons in office or administrative positions are less likely to be working on weekends. Only 20% of those folks report doing weekend work, compared to ~82% of them working on weekdays either full- or part-time.

But on a typical working day, nearly one in four employed Americans reported that they do at least some of their work at home. Not surprisingly, self-employed people are likely to do so, but those working in business management are more likely to do so as well.

The BLS reports that employed men spend, on average, 8 hours and 9 minutes per day on work or work-related activities. That’s a bit more time than employed women spend on work-related activities (their daily average was 7 hours and 26 minutes).

However, the trajectory appears to be upward for women and downward for men … so it may not be long before any difference between the genders completely disappears.

And for those people who work more than one job … that’s where weekends have lost most of their meaning as a time for R&R, because fully half of the people with multiple jobs find themselves working weekends.

As things evolve, it’s becoming pretty clear that the “Protestant Work Ethic” for which our society is so well known remains pretty robust, 200+ years on.

It reminds me of how a teacher of Russian History explained things to us students in class at Vanderbilt University back in my college years. Speaking of Southern Europe, this professor claimed, “People work to live” … whereas in Northern Europe, “They live to work.”

For some folks, as their working years grind on, they might be thinking that the whole enterprise has become a little sucky. But hopefully, most of us are performing tasks we like or love, so that it doesn’t seem quite so much like “work” … or apply whatever other coping mechanism does the trick!

The Google+ Social Network: Net Plus or Net Minus?

Google Plus, Google+What’s the latest with Google+? The big splash predicted when the new social platform hit the web has been more of a ripple instead.

Underscoring this, recent news reports have suggested that Google basically missed the boat on social media … and that rival Facebook is far too well-established to face anything more than just token competition going forward.

It’s true that many people find the prospects of building and engaging in yet another social media channel a wearying thought, to say the least. There are, after all, only so many hours in the day.

But Google doesn’t want to cede the social media marketplace to Facebook without a fight. That’s understandable, considering the billions of dollars in potential advertising revenues that come from being able to serve ad messages to people who are connected to others who “like” a product or service.

The results charted to date on Facebook confirm that displaying friend “likes” adds an extra measure of credibility to advertising. That’s manifested in a clickthrough rate that’s three times what’s typical for other advertisements on the social platform.

The launch of Google+ this past summer hasn’t resulted in huge user adoption, that much is clear. The Google+ social platform has managed to nab ~40 million users, which isn’t a shabby number in and of itself. But it pales in comparison to the more than 800 million active users on Facebook.

But despite this less-than-stellar performance, we see clues as to where Google is going with its social platform. That’s because Google’s equivalent of the “like” button – the “+1” notation that shows up on Google’s search engine results pages – goes further than simply communicating the news to those in someone’s own Google+ network. Google is also mapping that information through to its Gmail account base.

Google’s Gmail service has hundreds of millions of users, and those who use the site regularly have accumulated dozens or hundreds of contacts. So when a user clicks +1, Google can show that result not just to the user’s social friends on Google+, but also to his or her contacts in Gmail.

[For those who cry “foul” on privacy grounds, Google maintains that clicking the “+1” button is a public action and therefore not subject to privacy considerations.]

The jury’s still out on what the social map will look like in a couple years. There’s little doubt Facebook will still be the biggest guy on the block. The question is, to what extent will Google have taken the 600 pound gorilla down a notch? Stay tuned …

Adult Children Today: Dependency Redefined

Adult kids financially dependent on their parentsThose of us with children who are recent college graduates might wonder if we’re the only ones continuing to support them financially in a big way.

It turns out, we’re far from alone. In fact, a recent consumer survey by Vibrant Nation, an online community focusing on Baby Boomer women, finds that parents are supporting their adult kids (defined as up to age 30) in all sorts of ways:

 Paying for cellphone service: ~60% of parents are supporting
 Paying for insurance: ~53%
 Paying for rent: ~39%
 Paying for non-school related trips and travel: ~38%
 Paying for clothing: ~36%
 Paying for cars and computers: ~33%

Looking down this list, it’s no wonder so many “empty nesters” feel like their child-raising years are far from over!

[But thank goodness for small favors: At least it’s only a minority of parents who are buying their adult kids automobiles and computers.]

Thinking back ~35 years ago when I finished my college studies, there wasn’t one thing on the list above that my parents covered for me (although they were helpful when it came to loaning me money for the down payment on my first home purchase — barely three years out of school).

So at first blush, it’s quite startling to see these numbers. Then again, considering the ugly employment situation for today’s recent college graduates, perhaps it’s not so surprising after all.

And there’s another interesting twist to the “new dependency” as well. In the past, once adult children left home – financially as well as physically – it was much easier for them to break the ties of parental influence and control. I don’t recall asking my folks for their opinion about much of anything in those years following school.

Today, with kids so financially dependent on their parents for pretty much anything of consequence, it’s much easier for parents to exert that influence.

Let’s just say, our opinions carry a lot more weight.

How about you? In what ways are you continuing to support your adult kids? And is there a downside?

The Three Search Behavior Patterns: Answer … Educate … Inspire

Three mindsets of search, from Latitude consumer research survey (2011)Not long ago, I blogged about how the Internet has become as fundamental to our existence as the very air we breathe. On any given day, millions of people log on to the web to find answers to any number of questions they may have.

But despite the limitless subjects that are the topic of these searches, it turns out that search behaviors can be divided into three distinct categories.

That’s what research conducted earlier this year by survey firm Latitude Research found. The results of this highly interesting survey, which queried ~925 Americans age 21 to 54, revealed that users searching on the web exhibit just three major behavior patterns:

Answer Me – People in this mode want answers to exactly what they’re asking for … no less and no more. They also want the answers delivered to them in the most direct way possible. These types of queries are the largest component of searches … representing ~46% of all searches.

Educate Me – People in this mode are looking for comprehensive understanding on an issue, and they’re usually interested in multiple perspectives. They’ll search until their goal is satisfied … and this may occur over a lengthy period of time and through multiple searches on related topics. These types of queries make up ~26% of all searches, and they’re often on topics like finance and healthcare.

Inspire Me – The third category of queries are the creative, exploratory type of search where people have an open mind, are willing to be led, and are open to surprises. These types of searches represent the remaining ~28%, and are often on topics pertaining to the arts, hobbies, travel, home inspirations and gardening.

The Latitude Research report recommends that web sites include content that can appeal to all three categories of searches … although there will usually be a preponderance of one type over the others depending on the market segments, products and services involved.

The following suggestions were made for aligning content to query behaviors:

For “answer” searches … it’s wise to feature product/service benefits, in addition to presenting content in quick, easy-to-find answers. Clearly defined “selling” pitches work well in this setting.

For “educate” searches … present informative content that also provides ways to explore more facets of the issue … plus offering relevant links to additional online information sources. The “selling” in this case comes more in the form of educating and informing.

For “inspire” searches … focus on sparking the imagination of site visitors, with “surprise” moments that will generate interest and spur creative thought. When this is done effectively, strong sales pitches don’t need to be pushed because the viewer will be drawn into the buying process naturally and effortlessly.

For more on the interesting findings from the Three Mindsets of Search research study, click here.

Holiday Consumer Spending Forecast Tracks the Economy: Just Muddling Along

The holiday shopping forecast for 2011 is pretty blah.If anyone was hoping for good news at the end of the year, it’s not coming in the form of increased holiday spending by consumers.

The National Retail Federation’s annual Holiday Consumer Intentions & Actions Survey concludes that holiday shoppers plan to spend an average of just over $700 on holiday gifts and seasonal merchandise.

That’s down slightly from last year’s holiday spending plans, which were closer to $720.

The chart below shows how average holiday spending has mirrored general economic conditions in the country over the past eight years:

 2004: ~$700
 2005: ~$735
 2006: ~$751
 2007: ~$755
 2008: ~$694
 2009: ~$681
 2010: ~$719
 2011: ~$704

After having grown to more than $750 in the 2006/07 period, a significant drop-off was seen in 2008 and 2009. With the recession bottoming out, this was followed by a tidy little jump in holiday spending 2010.

But just like the rest of the economic picture, things have stalled since then – or pulled slightly back.

In another recent survey, Ipsos Public Affairs has found that women are more likely than men to be planning to cut back on their holiday shopping outlays … as are people over age 35 compared to younger adults.

With consumers continuing to watch their wallets, it’s no surprise that many are taking advantage of savings opportunities. In the Ipsos survey, half of all respondents reported that they had used magazine coupons within the previous 30 days, and there was significant usage of online savings vehicles as well:

 Magazine or newspaper coupons: ~50% have used in the past 30 days
 Loyalty cards or in-store promos: ~47% have used
 Printable coupons from the web: ~28% have used
 Online “daily deal” coupons: ~27% have used
 Online coupon codes: ~25% have used

Despite the slightly lower figures for intended holiday spending in 2011, the National Retail Federation’s survey finds that nearly 40% of consumers will have already started their holiday shopping in October. A similar 40% plan to start shopping in November, while the remaining 20% won’t begin their shopping activities until September.

[A slim ~4% represent those procrastinators who don’t plan to start any of their shopping until the last two weeks of December; I think most of us all know at least one person who falls into this rarified category.]

And if you’re wondering how the average shopper plans to allocate his or her holiday spending this year, it comes as little surprise that shopping for gifts for children and other family members represents well over half of the value of planned purchases:

 Gifts for children, parents and other family members: ~$403
 Gifts for friends, co-workers and others: ~$112
 Holiday-related food items: ~$97
 Holiday decorations: ~$47
 Greeting cards: ~$27
 Flowers: ~$18

What about you? Do your holiday shopping plans for 2011 mirror what the NRF survey found?

Computer Voices: (Virtually) All Female

Computer voices, voice-activated features, overwhelmingly femaleOwners of the new Apple iPhone 4S are no doubt becoming familiar with the new voice-activated feature, dubbed “Siri.”

Listening to the computer voice, it’s clear that Siri is a “she,” not a “he” … which has some journalists thinking about the fact that computer voices are overwhelmingly female.

There are some exceptions. The famous “You’ve got mail!” voice from AOL’s dial-up days is one. Plus the fact that nearly all voice-activated features in Germany utilize a male voice.

But otherwise, it’s nearly universal that these voices are female. The question is why?

Journalist Brandon Griggs, writing for CNN recently, reports that “one answer may lie in biology. Scientific studies have shown that people generally find women’s voices to be more pleasing than men’s.”

Clifford Nass, a professor of communications and computer science at Stanford University who has studied this topic closely, contends that it’s much easier to find a female voice that people like rather than a male voice.

“It’s a well-established phenomenon that the human brain is developed to like female voices,” Nass maintains. As proof, he cites a study in which fetuses were found to react to the sound of their mother’s voice … but not to their father’s.

I think another reason may be acclimatization. During World War II, my mother worked in air traffic control at the Parris Island Marine Corps Base. There were only women working these positions, and for a very practical reason: Their voices really stood out in the cockpit among the male pilots.

And what about telephone operators? For decades, they were nearly100% female voices.

Beginning in the 1980s, when auto makers first began installing automated voice prompts in cars (remember “Lights are on” and “Your door is ajar”?), consumer research found that drivers overwhelmingly preferred female voices to male ones. So is it any wonder that nearly all GPS navigation systems today have female-sounding speech as the default voice?

Not surprisingly, there are some people who contend that using a female voice as a “virtual assistant” is sexist in nature. But I’m not sure we can attribute “overt” sexism to the choices companies have made in this regard. Like with the auto companies, these decisions are probably based on market research.

So at best, it’s possible that the choice reflects some gender stereotyping that already exists in the general public.

On balance, I think it’s a positive that so many computer voices are female. After all, these voices have been selected based on attributes like warmth, friendliness and competence.

If that makes it sexist, so be it … but it puts most of the gold stars on the female side of the ledger, that’s for sure!

Online coupon deals: Take those “whopping” discounts with a grain of salt.

Online daily deals save you less than you might think.
That "big discount" you think you're getting? Chances are, it's based on inflating the regular price.
In the world of retail, while the way people buy goods and services may be evolving at a rapid clip, it turns out that some aspects have changed nary a bit.

Take online couponing. Groupon and LivingSocial are the two big players in this segment, which enables consumers to take advantage of deep discounts on products or services providing enough people sign up for the offer. They’ve been proliferating in retail markets all over the country.

But think back to the “bad old days” of brick-and-mortar retail. Often, you might encounter a “deep discount” at a grocery store or big box store, only to realize later that the discount was calculated off of an unrealistically high list price for the item.

While not illegal, such practices are certainly deceptive, in that the product was rarely if ever sold at the “standard” price.

Well, guess what? When looking at online coupon deals, we’re now finding the very same practices at work.

Recently, local local services online directory Thumbtack contacted vendors offering daily deals from Groupon or LivingSocial. Vendors were “shopped” in metro markets all across the country that included a variety of services ranging from home cleaning and maid services to interior painting, handyman services and studio photography.

In eight out of ten cases, Thumbtack found that it was quoted a price over the phone that was lower than the advertised “regular” price cited in the supposedly “great” deals being offered.

Two examples:

 On September 19, 2011, Groupon offered two hours of home cleaning services in Phoenix, AZ for $49 … an amount it claimed was 67% off of the “regular” price of $150. When contacted by phone, the non-discounted price for the exact same cleaning services was $80. So the consumer was still getting a discount … but hardly the 67% as breathlessly claimed.

 On August 24, 2011, Groupon offered carpet cleaning services for a 200 sq. ft. area in San Francisco, CA for $45 — purportedly a 78% discount from the regular price of $200. The price quoted over the phone for similar square footage? Just $106. No doubt, Groupon, LivingSocial and their participating vendors realize that one way to make an offer more attractive is to make sure the percentage discount is huge – and thus unlikely to be offered again.

It’s really no different from practices we’ve seen used in retail over many years. But as more consumers become more savvy to the ways of online deals, it’s quite likely that we’ll find fewer people choosing to participate in them based on the “whopping” discounts claimed.

The Consequences of Alabama’s New Immigration Law: Welcome to Economics 101

Alabama's tough new immigration law (2011)Since the passing of Alabama’s tough new immigration law several months ago, two major things have happened:

1. Many immigrant workers have left the workforce.

2. Employers – especially agricultural operations – have found it nearly impossible to replace the lost workers.

In retrospect, neither development seems particularly surprising. Many immigrant workers, whether they’re here in the United States legally or not, fear the heavy hand of government and will opt to find a more inviting environment than the one in Alabama today. For now at least, that environment is better in nearly all of the other 49 states.

And while the jobs no longer being done by immigrants may now be sought by American citizens – after all, the ~9.9% unemployment rate in Alabama is higher than the overall U.S. rate – the appetite for doing many of these jobs dissipates quickly when people are confronted by the reality of what is required to perform them.

Alicia Caldwell, an Associated Press reporter, spoke last week with some Alabama farmers to find out what has happened since Americans were hired to replace immigrant workers.

“Most show up late, work slower than seasoned farm hands and are ready to call it a day after lunch or by mid-afternoon. Some quit after a single day,” Caldwell reported in her AP article published last week.

As a result, farmers are opting to leave crops in the field rather than harvesting them.

What we have here is a classic Economics 101 lesson. If workers aren’t willing to do the jobs at a labor cost that will enable the products to be sold at a competitive price, the crops won’t be brought to market.

If agricultural operations in the whole world faced the same situation as Alabama farmers, it’s possible that a new labor/price equilibrium could be established. But not only is Alabama competing against other states where immigrant labor continues to be used, it’s also competing against other countries that produce the same crops.

The result? No one is winning. Not the farmers … not the immigrant workers … nor the unemployed Americans who have decided that ramaining unemployed is preferable to working a difficult or unpleasant job.

The Alabama state government is attempting to support the transition away from immigrant workers. A program started recently seeks to pair Alabamians interested in jobs with the state’s farming operations that need replacement labor.

So far, the results of this effort haven’t been encouraging, with only ~260 people registering interest in temporary agricultural jobs.

Out in the field, reporter Caldwell has found ample anecdotal evidence that underscores the disconnect between the “theory” versus “practical reality” of unemployed Americans taking advantage of these new job opportunities:

Tomato farmer Wayne Smith said he has never been able to keep a staff of American workers in his 25 years of farming.

“People in Alabama are not going to do this,” said Smith, who grows about 75 acres of tomatoes in the northeast part of the state. “They’d work one day and then just wouldn’t show up again.”

At this farm, field workers get $2 for every 25-pound box of tomatoes they fill. Skilled pickers can make anywhere from $200 to $300 a day, he said. Unskilled workers make much less.

A crew of four Hispanics can earn about $150 each by picking 250-300 boxes of tomatoes in a day, said Jerry Spencer of Grow Alabama, which purchases and sells locally owned produce. A crew of 25 Americans recently picked 200 boxes – giving them each $24 for the day.

Years ago, an old Russian emigré professor of Slavic history and literature at Vanderbilt University advised us students, “As you grow older and wiser, you’ll come to realize that the great issues of the day can’t be debated in black and white. Because the two sides aren’t black and white; they’re really shades of gray.”

Those words could well be applied to the immigration debate and its socioeconomic consequences. Certainly, one “black and white” issue that should be banished from the discussion is the notion that if all of the jobs done by illegal immigrants were to become available to Americans, our unemployment problem would be magically solved.

Mini Cooper and Tata Nano: Two Sizzling Cars that are Just Smokin’!

Mini Cooper car on fire.
The Mini Cooper: Not exactly "sizzling" in the way their owners would like.
Tata Nano vehicle on fire.
Tata Nano: One smokin' vehicle.
The news that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is investigating complaints of engine fires in Mini Cooper “S” auto models from 2007 and 2008 reminds us that the “explosive” popularity of small cars is sometimes accompanied by “smokin’” performance of a completely different nature.

The Mini Cooper’s engine fires have resulted in blazes that can destroy the entire car … and some of those fires happened after the vehicles had been shut off. Owners of the Mini Cooper, Cooper Clubman and Cooper Convertible, you’ve been fairly warned!

Hopefully, the findings from the NHTSA investigation won’t be as crippling for the Mini Cooper as similar investigations of the Tata Nano car in India. That vehicle burst on the scene in 2009 to breathless praise from all quarters, ranging from top industrial designers to leading consumer advocates.

With a base price of just $2,200 – lower than any other car in the world – along with noteworthy styling that had the design world abuzz, it was an irresistible story of the confluence of value engineering and design chic.

Until the car’s engines starting catching on fire.

Tata Motors has been frantically working on the problem in recent months, adding new safety features to the Nano (now dubbed the “Tata No-No” by more than a few industry observers). The manufacturer has also extended the car’s warranty to four years and is offering big discounts and cheap financing to maintain sales levels.

Nevertheless, the company has seen monthly unit purchases slide by more than 80%. It’s certainly a far cry from the heady days of 2008 when the Tata Nano won the prestigious Innovation Award in the Transportation category and was the toast of the design world.

Will the Mini Cooper follow the Tata Nano into automotive ignominy? Likely not. But it’s a huge black eye for a car brand that’s been nearly immune from criticism – at least until now.

One thing’s for sure: Before this week, no one would have expected the Mini Cooper and Tata Nano to be spoken about in the same breath. Now they’re the Bobbsey Twins. And that has to be really bad news for the Mini Cooper.

Pew Monitors Changing Views about the News Media

News media organizations losing luster with Americans
News organizations are losing their luster with Americans, according to the Pew Research Center.
The Pew Research Center for People and the Press has been surveying American adults since 1985 about their views of the news media.

A new comprehensive report, incorporating results up to and including field surveys conducted in 2011, finds that negative opinions about the performance of news media are higher than ever on nine of twelve key measures studied.

Here are some sobering stats from this year’s consumer pulse:

 ~66% of respondents believe that news stories are often inaccurate
 ~77% think that news organizations tend to favor one side over another politically
 ~80% believe that news organizations are influenced by powerful people and organizations

The findings on the accuracy of news reporting are particularly striking. As few as four years ago, ~39% of respondents felt that news organizations “mostly get the facts straight” while ~53% believed that the news stories were “often inaccurate.”

Today’s those numbers look more depressing: Only ~25% say that news organizations tend to get the facts straight, while ~66% contend that news stories are often inaccurate.

[Of course, when it comes to respondents’ own preferred news outlets, the figures don’t look nearly as dismal. In fact, nearly two thirds of the respondents believe their preferred news sources get the facts mostly correct.]

Who does the public see as the leading “news media” these days? Cable TV organizations clearly lead in the rankings, with network news now pushed down the list:

 ~43% named CNN as a “news organization”
 ~39% named Fox News
 ~18% named NBC News
 ~16% named ABC News
 ~12% named CBS News
 ~12% named MSNBC
 ~10% named local TV news

It’s been a long fall for CBS News in particular, which was once considered the ace news broadcast network in the United States.

In general terms, who do people trust most as a source of news? The answer may be surprising to some: Top-ranked are local news organizations:

 Local news organizations: ~69% of people have “a lot” or “some” trust
 National news organizations: ~59%
 State government: ~51%
 Presidential administration: ~50%
 Federal government agencies: ~44%
 Business corporations: ~41%
 U.S. Congress: ~37%
 Political candidates: ~29%

And as far as where people go for news, TV and the Internet continue to be the top two sources. But consider how those rankings have changed. Five years ago, TV was cited by 74% of survey respondents as one of the two top news sources … but that figure has now declined to ~66%.

As for the Internet, it’s grown from ~24% saying it’s a top-two source for news in 2007, to ~43% today.

Meanwhile, newspapers are staying on the decline … so that today, only ~31% of respondents place them among the two top sources of news. Newspapers continue to have their partisans among the over-65 age segment, but younger than this, it’s just a lost cause.

But there’s one bright spot for newspapers: They continue to be recognized as a leading source of local news. This helps explain why many small-town and local papers have been better able to navigate the choppy waters of newspaper publishing better than their big-city counterparts.

There are many more interesting findings outlined in the latest Pew news organization survey. For more details, click here.