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Consumer Confidential: Spirit service, Toyota profit, coffee prices

August 4, 2010 | 10:36 am

Here's your wherefore-art-thou Wednesday roundup of consumer news from around the Web:

-- Spirit Airlines, which has pioneered fees for carry-on bags, is now weighing a new charge: fees to speak with a human being. The airline's CEO, Ben Baldanza, says that once automation becomes more efficient, it's feasible that Spirit will be able to sell contact with a real person as a premium. "It's not that we don't think it's not a good idea at some point," he said with an impressive double negative. Needless to say, it's easy to imagine a scenario whereby seat belts, tray tables and other things we foolishly take for granted on airlines will also be viewed soon as fee-bearing extras.

-- We talk all the time about Toyota recalling millions of vehicles. But the Japanese automaker isn't hurting. It says quarterly profit hit $2.2 billion and that it expects to sell 7.38 million vehicles worldwide for the year through March 2011, up from 7.24 million the previous year. Clearly the safety issues that engulfed Toyota have not proved an insurmountable barrier for consumers. Perversely, they might actually help over the long haul as Toyota presses home the case that its vehicles are now safer than ever.

-- As if life wasn't already hard enough, now comes word that coffee is about to become more expensive. J.M. Smucker Co. has jacked up the price for most of its Folgers, Dunkin' Donuts, Millstone and Folgers Gourmet Selections coffees by an average 9%. And because Folgers is considered the pacesetter for coffee prices, other top roasters -- such as Kraft, which owns Maxwell coffee -- typically follow suit. The latest price hikes follow a 4% increase by Smucker in May. Over the last couple of months, the price of coffee beans on commodities markets has jumped by almost 35%. Wake me when this nightmare is over.

-- David Lazarus

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