March 20, 2023

Bucks Blog: My Tryout of Citi’s Price Protection Service

Awhile back, I wrote about a new service that Citigroup offers on its credit cards called Price Rewind. It lets cardholders register purchases, and then searches for the same items at lower prices. If it finds one, it refunds you the difference.

I happen to have a Citi credit card, and this week I received an e-mail with this message in the subject line: “Your recent purchase may be eligible for a better price.”

I was curious. What recent purchase?

It turns out that the message wasn’t referring to a specific purchase. Rather, it was a pitch for me to give Price Rewind a try, to see if perhaps something I had recently bought might be eligible for a refund.

I was mildly annoyed at the somewhat misleading e-mail, but I decided to try out the service anyway. I looked through my most recent online credit card statement to see if there was anything I should enter for a price check.

This brought to light some drawbacks with the service. For starters, the line items on your credit card statement aren’t itemized. The details of the purchase are on the original receipt, which you must have in hand to enter the necessary information. I generally don’t keep receipts for smaller ticket items, though I do get some receipts electronically.

So the first issue is that if you want to use the service, you have to make sure to enter the product information soon after you buy the item, before the receipt goes in the trash (or wherever it is that lost receipts go).

I did, however, happen to have a paper receipt handy for a small refrigerator I had recently bought from Home Depot, for $359. (It had been a difficult item to find initially, because it had to fit in a confined space and so was a bit of an oddball model in terms of size.) So I entered the product information into Price Rewind’s search engine, and got — nothing. Several other items under the same brand came up, but not the specific model I had purchased.

I contacted the program’s customer service line, and a representative asked me for the product information (brand and model number) before putting me on hold, apparently to search Citi’s list of eligible items. She couldn’t find it either. She said that didn’t mean that it was ineligible, just that it wasn’t on the list. She advised me to wait a couple of days and try again, since new items are often added to the database. Or, I could search for a lower price myself and then submit a claim form on my own.

Well, sure I could. But that sort of defeats the purpose of having the system search automatically for you. Generally, I look around for the best price ahead of time and then, after I make the purchase, I get on with life. I don’t spend a lot of time hunting for lower prices anymore.

So it seems that the service may work better for bigger-ticket items that are widely available.

A Citi spokeswoman said that about a quarter of registered purchases over $100 have been eligible for a refund and about 38 percent of registered purchases over $1,000. The average refund is $80. Eligible items include vacuum cleaners and televisions, as well as designer jeans, shoes and luggage.

Have you used Price Rewind or other price guarantee services? What was your experience with it? Did you get any money back?

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It’s the Economy: Come On, China, Buy Our Stuff!

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. In 2000, the United States forged its current economic relationship with China by permanently granting it most-favored-nation trade status and, eventually, helping the country enter the World Trade Organization. The unspoken deal, though, went something like this: China could make a lot of cheap goods, which would benefit U.S. consumers, even if it cost the country countless low-end manufacturing jobs. And rather than, say, fight for an extra bit of market share in Chicago, American multinationals could offset any losses because of competition by entering a country with more than a billion people — including the fastest-growing middle class in history — just about to buy their first refrigerators, TVs and cars. It was as if the United States added a magical 51st state, one that was bigger and grew faster than all the others. We would all be better off.

More than a decade later, many are waiting for the payoff. Certainly, lots of American companies have made money, but many actual workers have paid a real price. What went wrong? In part, American businesses assumed that a wealthier China would look like, well, America, says Paul French, a longtime Shanghai-based analyst with Access Asia-Mintel. He notes that Chinese consumers have spent far less than expected, and the money they do spend is less likely to be spent on American goods.

There is a long list of missteps, French says. Home Depot, for example, overestimated the desire for D.I.Y. home projects and high-end materials in a country with an unbelievably cheap labor force and a thriving black market. Kodak learned it couldn’t forever dump its unsold film on a consumer base looking to make their first cameras digital ones. The Gap had to learn that a thriving middle class does not want to dress shabby-chic. In general, French says, European companies have done much better than American ones because they’ve had to practice selling across borders and cultures for decades.

Many U.S. executives also assumed that as China got richer, its citizens would spend more of their income. But the opposite has happened: the country’s savings rate is now climbing faster than its spending. China’s households save more than a quarter of their money, while Americans save less than 4 percent.

Some argue that this is because of millenniums-old Confucian frugality. Others say it’s more prosaic. When China joined the W.T.O. in 2001, it famously conceded that it would break “the iron rice bowl” — to get rid of the millions of decent-paying (for China) government jobs with fairly generous (for China) benefits. Partly as a result, a successful professional in Shanghai knows that she will have to bear any future health care or retirement costs for herself and, because of the one-child policy, for her parents and grandparents too.

Yet probably the greatest barrier to Chinese consumption is the policy of China’s Central Bank. Every month, the United States buys around $35 billion in goods and services from China and sells around $11 billion back. That, of course, leaves a $24 billion trade deficit. Currencies work like any other salable good in that they adjust based on supply and demand. Every month, the United States is demanding a lot of renminbi and China is demanding few U.S. dollars. The natural result should be for the dollar to get weaker as the renminbi gets stronger.

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You’re the Boss: Has Perky Jerky Lost Its Perk?

Courtesy of Perky Jerky.


The adventure of new ventures.

Long before Lady Gaga donned her famous meat dress, Brian Levin was wearing a 30-pound beef tunic.

Decked out in silver packets of beef jerky, the entrepreneur’s “jerk suit” made him look like a human-shaped convenience store rack. His mission? Drawing attention to Perky Jerky, a caffeinated meat snack he brought to market two years ago with a co-founder and college buddy, Matt Keiser. Together, they sell it through Home Depot, 7-Eleven, Target, Publix and Sports Authority, claiming nearly $1 million in revenue for 2010.

Yes, you read that right: “caffeinated meat snack.” Perky Jerky’s beef and turkey varieties are steeped in guarana, a Brazilian berry that’s packed with caffeine. The original Web site set up by the company — Performance Enhancing Meat Snacks — claimed that “Each 2 oz. pack of Perky Jerky contains roughly 150 mg. of caffeine, or slightly less than the caffeine amount in 2 Red Bulls.”

But Mr. Levin learned something that Lady Gaga apparently has not: Attention isn’t always such a good thing. In March of last year, the United States Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service sent him a cease-and-desist letter two weeks after the snack was mentioned in a Wall Street Journal article about guarana. The gist of that buzz-killing message was this: Guarana is authorized as a food additive only when used in small quantities as a flavor enhancer, rather than in the larger quantities required to produce a caffeinated boost.

While the U.S.D.A. wouldn’t comment on Perky Jerky’s case specifically, officials explained that the Food Safety and Inspection Service “would not allow producers of beef jerky to add sufficient quantities of guarana to produce a stimulant effect.” In short, the feds told Perky Jerky to go cold turkey.

Since then, Mr. Levin says he has quietly mellowed the brand’s high-octane formula and turbocharged marketing. The word “caffeine” does not appear on new promotional materials or packaging. “We’ve taken down the levels of guarana,” he said. Nowadays, he added, a single serving of Perky Jerky has about as much caffeine as a Diet Coke. (So far, there’s been little mention of the lowered caffeine dose on the company’s Web site, though it did come up on Twitter.)

“We live in a very gray area of government regulation and that’s why we have to be very careful with what we say and how we say it,” Mr. Levin said.

And therein lies a challenge. Ever since the Englewood, Colo., company introduced its unusual snack in August 2009, the product has been marketed to adrenaline junkies as “the meat with a motor.” Mr. Levin still pitches it to the media with a larger-than-life origin story: He and Mr. Keiser were riding a chairlift together at the Snowbird ski resort in Utah when they realized that the beef jerky they’d stashed in a knapsack had been baptized by a leaky Red Bull. He says that they ate the soggy, yet fuel-injected snack and — voila! — the idea for Perky Jerky was born.

During a preliminary interview this April, Mr. Levin explained that getting distribution in national chain stores had been challenging, but that Perky Jerky appealed to retail category managers who “have seen lightning strike before in the form of 5-Hour Energy and even Red Bull.” He added: “This is the next Red Bull.” The strategy seemed to be working. In June, Target stores nationwide began carrying Perky Jerky.

So what do you do when your product loses a main selling point? In other words: What’s Perky Jerky without the perk? Mr. Levin says he hopes to pivot the brand toward a high-end audience by approaching retailers like Whole Foods and Lululemon, pitching it as a low-calorie, protein-rich snack with quality ingredients or, as he puts it (with a straight face), “the filet mignon of beef jerky.”

That might require overcoming stereotypes that lump beef jerky with cowboys, rowdies and the late wrestler Macho Man Randy Savage, who for many years exhorted television viewers to “Snap into a Slim Jim!” It would also mean attracting more female snackers, Mr. Levin added. But that could be tricky for a brand whose slogans include “Everyone wants my meat,” a line that’s available on $20 T-shirts sold at the company’s Web site. Asked whether the shirts jibe with the upscale image he wants to create, he said, “You have to do something that gets people’s attention.”

But the new strategy is not fully in place. Remnants of the old heady, well-caffeinated days still crop up via continued fan sightings of the Jerk Mobile, the company’s Porsche Cayenne S.U.V., which is painted with the Perky Jerky logo and the slogan “caffeinated beef jerky,” along with many online vendors and articles that reflect the old marketing copy and the original 150-milligram caffeine dose. (“It’s out there but, we don’t condone it in any way,” Mr. Levin said of retailers using the outdated messages.) Perky Jerky’s YouTube channel still showcases bobble-headed avatars for Sarah Palin and Larry King discussing the product’s peppy properties. “It is caffeinated beef jerky,” cartoon Palin explains. “Perky Jerky gives me the energy I need to stay up with the Alaskan sun, 24 hours a day!”

It’s clear that there is some confusion in the market. “When we put a product on our site and say it has ‘x’ amount of caffeine in it, it needs to have ‘x’ amount of caffeine in it,” said Jamie Grove, the vice president of marketing at, an e-commerce site that reported $76.3 million in sales for 2010 and has an entire section dedicated to caffeinated products, including Perky Jerky.  The site describes Perky Jerky as “Sweet sweet caffeine in beef jerky form!” and says it contains 150 milligrams of caffeine per bag.

Mr. Grove said the company hadn’t been advised of any changes in Perky Jerky’s caffeine content but planned to check into it. A lower dosage, he said, wouldn’t necessarily exclude it from its offerings, so long as the company knows what that dosage is and can be straight with customers. “If we get some waffly answer and if we don’t come away with confidence I won’t want to have this on our site,” Mr. Grove concluded. “There’s no reason for us to carry things that are marginal. There’s plenty of stuff that’s legit and upfront.”

Earlier this week, a fan on Twitter wrote: “I hope it is an energy drink in food form…” The reply from Perky Jerky? “We just might be .”

Does Mr. Levin worry that consumers may buy Perky Jerky because they have a false impression of how much caffeine is actually in his product?

“I will never worry that people are buying it,” he replied. “I will worry that they’re not.”

In March, Mr. Levin told Entrepreneur magazine he expected Perky Jerky to bring in as much as $10 million for 2011. But in an interview last week, he revised that projection to somewhere between $3 million and $5 million.

What do you think? Can Perky Jerky class up its act and keep its mojo without a caffeine kick? Is there an alternative?

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Easier-to-Open Packaging? Thank High Oil Prices

But the maddening — and nearly impenetrable — plastic packaging known as clamshells could become a welcome casualty of the difficult economy. High oil prices have manufacturers and big retailers reconsidering the use of so much plastic, and some are aggressively looking for cheaper substitutes.

“With the instability in petroleum-based materials, people said, ‘We need an alternative to the clamshell,’ ” said Jeff Kellogg, vice president of consumer electronics and security packaging at the packaging company MeadWestvaco.

Companies are scuttling plastic of all kind wherever they can.

Target has removed the plastic lids from its Archer Farms yogurts, has redesigned packages for some light bulbs to eliminate plastic, and is selling socks held together by paper bands rather than in plastic bags.

Wal-Mart, which has pledged to reduce its packaging by 5 percent between 2008 and 2013, has pushed suppliers to concentrate laundry detergent so it can be sold in smaller containers, and made round hydrogen peroxide bottles into square ones to cut down on plastic use.

At Home Depot, Husky tools are going from clamshell to paperboard packaging, and EcoSmart LED bulbs are about to be sold in a corrugated box, rather than a larger plastic case.

“Most of our manufacturers have been working on this,” said Craig Menear, the head of merchandising at Home Depot. “We’ve certainly been encouraging them.”

Shoppers have long complained that clamshells are a literal pain, and environmentalists have blasted them as wasteful. To save money and address complaints, retailers and manufacturers started minimizing packaging in the e-commerce sphere a few years ago. Amazon, for example, unveiled a “frustration-free packaging” initiative in 2008 intended to defuse wrap rage and be more eco-friendly. Other retailers have also been looking for ways to improve the customer’s unpacking experience.

“As a guy in packaging, I get all the questions — there’s nothing worse than going to a cocktail party where someone’s asking why they can’t get into their stuff,” said Ronald Sasine, the senior director of packaging procurement at Wal-Mart. “I’ve heard over the years, ‘How come I need a knife to get into my knife?’ ‘How come I need a pair of scissors to get into my kids’ birthday present?’ ”

But reducing packaging is more complicated in physical stores. The packaging has to sell the product, whether with explanatory text, bright colors or catchy graphics. And it has to deter shoplifters. Retailers lost about 1.44 percent of sales to theft in 2009, the latest numbers available, according to the National Retail Federation.

“Clamshells actually served that purpose really well for the last 20 or 30 years,” Mr. Kellogg said. Then, petroleum prices rose, first in 2008 and again this year, so the cost of producing clamshells and other plastic packages, which are petroleum-based, shot up.

“Plastic packaging is a byproduct of a byproduct, and we don’t represent enough volume to counteract the industry,” Mr. Sasine said. “We get dictated by things like petroleum pricing, natural gas pricing, home heating oil.”

And during and after the recession, as retailers’ sales dropped, stores started looking to cut costs in new and imaginative ways.

With the interest in alternatives to so much plastic, MeadWestvaco took a tamper-evident cardboard sheet it originally supplied for pharmaceutical trials, added a clear laminate that prevented tearing, and stuck two sheets of the cardboard together. It put a cutout in the middle, and added a plastic bubble fit to a specific product, like a Swiss Army knife or a Kodak camera.

Though some of the technology, like the film that covers the cardboard, was not available until recently, “it’s a demand issue as well — it’s hard to develop something internally then go cram it into the market if there’s no need,” Mr. Kellogg said about why the package, called Natralock, was only recently introduced.

Wal-Mart began selling items in the new packaging in 2010, and though MeadWestvaco declined to release usage numbers, it says that all of the Swiss Army knives are using the new packaging, and about 85 percent of the computer memory market (like USB drives and SD cards) has switched over.

MeadWestvaco says the package reduces plastic by 60 percent, on average, versus the clamshell version for a given product. It also is lighter by 30 percent, which cuts down on transportation costs and fuel use.

Other packaging suppliers are also offering similarly treated cardboard with small plastic bubbles, which are called blister packs.

“We’ve seen a lot of small, high-value products moving away from what would have been two to three years ago a clamshell, to today what is a blister pack or blister board,” said Lorcan Sheehan, the senior vice president of marketing and strategy at ModusLink, which advises companies like Toshiba and HP on their supply chains.

The cost savings are big, Mr. Sheehan said. With a blister pack, the cost of material and labor is 20 to 30 percent cheaper than with clamshells. Also, he said, “from package density — the amount that you can fit on a shelf, or through logistics and supply chain, there is frequently 30 to 40 percent more density in these products.”

The packages also meet other requirements of retailers. Graphics and text can be printed on it.

Because most people cannot tear the product out of the blister pack with their hands, it helps prevent theft. Also, the small Sensormatic tag that is linked to a store’s alarm system is hidden between the two sheets of cardboard; with clamshells, it is stuck onto the exterior, so a shoplifter can more easily peel it off.

Though clamshells continue to dangle inside stores, “we’re seeing a significant shift,” Mr. Sheehan said. Among the manufacturers to make the change is the parent company of Wiss-brand metal-cutting snips, which are sold at Home Depot and elsewhere attached to a piece of cardboard with elastic staples — no plastic in sight.

Steven Hoskins, manager of packaging engineering for the Apex Tool Group, the parent company of Wiss, said that getting rid of the plastic packaging saved money, allowed for more products per shipment and cut down on waste.

And, Mr. Hoskins said, “the package is very attractive to the consumer.”

And relatively pain-free.

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Want a Piece of the Mets? It Helps to Fit the Profile

He almost certainly works in finance, and he probably roots for the Mets.

Who is he? He is one of the men angling to buy a minority share of the Mets.

The general profile of the known bidders for the Mets is not surprising, but it lacks the diversity of team owners who built ships (George Steinbrenner), sold cars (Bud Selig), co-founded Home Depot (Arthur Blank), erected shopping malls (Herb Simon) or started Microsoft (Paul Allen) with Bill Gates.

It makes sense that rich native Long Islanders would want a piece of the Mets despite their recent dismal on-field record and hefty financial losses. About one-quarter of the Mets’ fan base comes from the New York suburbs of Nassau and Suffolk Counties. A locally bred fan in the prime of his career — with lots of money — might be more willing than an outsider to accept a stake in the team that gives him no control. And in an economy in which Wall Street is faring better than most industries, a New York team can attract cash from financial executives.

“New York is where you’d think the money would come from,” said Rob Tilliss, the founder of Inner Circle Sports, a sports investment bank and adviser. “There are enough local buyers around the New York metropolitan area with substantial money.”

The sale for a limited partnership is nearing its final stage as the owners look at three offers for up to 49 percent of the Mets. Fred Wilpon, the Mets’ principal owner, was 43 when he bought a small piece of the team in 1980. He is from Brooklyn, whence people fled farther east; lives on the wealthy North Shore of Nassau County; put the headquarters of his company, Sterling Equities, in Great Neck; and made his money in real estate. His former partner in the Mets, Nelson Doubleday, was also a wealthy Long Islander, who published books.

More than 30 years later, Steven A. Cohen fits the parameters of the modern, updated profile. Cohen, a billionaire hedge fund manager in Connecticut, is 54. He runs SAC Capital Advisors, a powerful $12 billion hedge fund in Stamford, where the former Mets manager Bobby Valentine is the public safety director, and lives in Greenwich, Conn., where Tom Seaver lived before turning to winemaking. Cohen, who is from Great Neck, has a suite at Citi Field.

Anthony Scaramucci, also a hedge fund manager, is the profile personified. He is 47. He grew up in Port Washington. He lives in Manhasset. He delivered Newsday as a youngster. He took the Long Island Rail Road to Shea Stadium to watch the Mets. And Valentine gave him a blurb for his book, “Goodbye Gordon Gekko.”

Scaramucci still appears to be in the running to pay up to $200 million for less than half of the Mets, along with a neighbor in Manhasset, James F. McCann, whose son, Matt, works for Scaramucci.

McCann is 59, from Rockaway, Queens (a borough that is still a geographic part of Long Island), and while not a Wall Street Master of the Universe, runs a business,, from Carle Place on Long Island.

McCann has a direct connection to the Mets through his sponsorship of the team.

Steven Starker, another Wall Streeter, is from Brooklyn (also geographically part of Long Island) and was a founder of BTIG, a global trading firm. Two of his bidding partners also have Long Island roots. Kenny Dichter, a co-founder of Marquis Jets, and Doug Ellin, who created the HBO series “Entourage,” are 1986 graduates of Kennedy High School in Merrick, which last year inducted them into its hall of fame. The status of their offer for the Mets has not been determined. But it is typical of a process like the one being run by the investment firm Allen Company to ask finalists to improve their bids.

David Heller and Marc Spilker epitomized the investor profile, too, but they are out of the bidding. They are fabulously rich Mets fans, in their 40s, from Long Island. Spilker graduated from W. C. Mepham High School in Bellmore. Heller is a global co-leader of Goldman Sachs’s securities division. Spilker was a Goldman executive but is now president of Apollo Global Management, a private equity firm.

One of the first men in his 40s to voice an interest in the Mets was Mike Repole, the owner of the Kentucky Derby hopeful Uncle Mo. He is 42, grew up in Middle Village, Queens, lives on Long Island and made his wealth when Coca-Cola paid $4.1 billion for the company he co-founded, Glacéau, the maker of Vitaminwater. He balked at bidding without getting any control over the team.

Still another bidder, about whom little has been heard, is Jason Reese. He is in the financial world, as chairman of an investment bank called Imperial Capital in faraway Los Angeles. Still, he is a native Long Islander who played goal on the West Babylon High School lacrosse team and later for Yale.

One pair of bidders who have dropped out barely fit the profile. Leo Hindery, a media investor, and Marc A. Utay, managing partner of a private equity firm, work in Manhattan. But Hindery is from Washington State and Utay from Glenview, Ill.

The current profile of the Mets’ bidders resembles, to some degree, that of Joan Whitney Payson — an heiress whose main home was in Manhasset, and who, in her late 50s, became the first owner of the Mets, and their most ardent fan.

Peter Lattman and David Waldstein contributed reporting.

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