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Consumer Confidential: Vote set for debit-card fees; investors worry about Wii

Here's your west-end-girls Wednesday roundup of consumer news from around the Web:

-- The battle over debit-card fees is reaching a climax. The Senate is scheduled to vote Wednesday on whether to block the Federal Reserve from capping fees that stores pay banks every time a shopper swipes a debit card. At stake is whether to slash the $16 billion the Fed says merchants pay banks and credit card companies for the 38 billion times consumers use debit cards annually. The Fed says the fees average about 44 cents per swipe, which under a proposal the central bank unveiled last year would be capped at 12 cents. Last year's financial overhaul law ordered the Fed to issue a rule that will take effect on July 21. The Senate vote will be on an effort to delay the regulations for a year and order the Fed and three other agencies to study whether the proposal is fair. Each side claims to have consumers' interests at heart. Merchants say current fees, typically 1% to 2% of the purchase, push their prices higher. Banks say the Fed proposal discounts overhead costs like preventing fraud. Consumer advocates tell me that the actual cost of processing a transaction is closer to a penny, so I think banks would do just fine with a 12-cent cap.

-- Wii'll be seeing you. The stock of Wii maker Nintedo took a tumble after investors were underwhelmed by the company's new gaming console. The demonstration of a prototype at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles on Tuesday left the money crowd disappointed and skeptical. Analysts say it's unclear how successfully the machine would compete against smartphones and tablet PCs. The Japanese gaming giant behind Pokemon and Super Mario says the Wii U will broadcast high-definition video and feature a touch screen controller that can detect motion. All I know is that my kid, a Wii junkie, thinks the new system looks cool. But he has yet to take one for a test drive.

-- David Lazarus

Consumer Confidential: Flying iPads, Nintendo hacked, Batman begins again

Batpic Here's your more-more-more Monday roundup of consumer news from around the Web:

-- Fly the friendly iPad? British Airways is experimenting with handing out iPads for in-flight entertainment. The carrier has already begun trials of the iPad on selected Boeing 777 services as an alternative to the portable DVD players currently issued to first-class passengers. Late last year, Finnair began offering its premium passengers the use of an iPad on flights between Helsinki and Hong Kong. The tablets were preloaded with content including newspapers, magazines, movies and TV shows, music and games. Apple's touchscreen tablet is even finding its way into the cockpit, with Qantas investigating the use of the iPad as a replacement for bulky flight manuals.

-- First Sony, now Nintendo. The Wii maker said it was targeted in a recent online data attack but that no personal or company information was lost. The server of an affiliate of Nintendo's U.S. unit was accessed unlawfully a few weeks ago, but a spokesman said there was no damage. The damage was more serious at Sony. It says a huge amount of confidential info, including email addresses, names and birth dates, and involving more than 100 million users, is suspected of having been stolen after security was compromised in April for its network service for the PlayStation 3 game machine. It is still unclear who is behind the attacks at Sony and Nintendo.

-- If you're a comics collector (like I was and my son is now), some potentially big news: DC Comics is taking its flagship "Detective Comics" back to No. 1 at the end of the summer, part of its push to renumber all of its superhero titles and give the characters new looks, new attitudes and a contemporary feel. This is kind of a big deal because No. 1 issues have more cachet as collectibles (even thought it was "Detective" No. 27, in which Batman made his debut in 1939, that sold last year for more than $1 million). DC says it also will renumber its ongoing monthly "Batman" comic at No. 1. The company is launching 52 titles at No. 1 in September. DC has published "Detective Comics" every month since 1937 and is up to issue 877.

-- David Lazarus

Photo: DC's "Detective Comics" is starting over again. Credit: Associated Press


Amazon launches electronics trade-in program

Online retail giant announced that it has launched an electronics trade-in store, a program allowing customers to trade in their used electronics for Amazon gift cards.

Starting Wednesday, shoppers can trade in electronics including tablets, cellphones, MP3 players and GPS devices, regardless of where the products were originally purchased. Before shipping their electronics to Amazon, participants in the program have to verify that their product is part of the program and select whether the item is in like-new, good or acceptable condition.

After the product is received and inspected, an gift card will be deposited into the customer's account, usually in less than 48 hours, the company said.

The electronics trade-in store expands the company's existing trade-in program, which includes textbooks and video games.

-- Andrea Chang

A123 signs on as sponsor of TTXGP electric motorcycle racing series


The company supplying batteries for the soon-to-be released Fisker Karma electric car is sponsoring the 2011 TTXGP North American Championship electric motorcycle racing series. 

Massachusetts-based A123 Systems, which also has development deals with General Motors and BMW, is the first company to become a title sponsor for the TTXGP, which began on the Isle of Man in 2009 as a single race and expanded last year with a racing circuit in the U.S. and Europe.

A123 is title sponsor for the series kickoff May 15 at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., and a sponsor for the remaining three races in New Hampshire, Oregon and Virginia.

In a statement released Thursday, Robert Johnson, A123 vice president of energy solutions, said the company's sponsorship of the series is designed to "help promote its goal of moving vehicle electrification forward by showcasing the potential of high-performance technology like A123's lithium-ion battery systems."

A123 is the developer and manufacturer of advanced lithium-ion batteries. It was the recipient of a $249-million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy in 2009. The money was used to build the country's largest lithium-ion manufacturing facility in Livonia, Mich.   

Seven teams will compete in the A123 Infineon Round on May 15, including Mission Motors (based in San Francisco), Brammo Racing (from Ashland, Ore.) and the winner of last year's North American Championship, Lightning Motors (in Woodside, Calif.).

This year's TTXGP is the first to be sanctioned by the American Motorcyclist Assn., as well as the International Motorcycling Federation, or FIM, North American union. 

"We're not renegades anymore," said Azhar Hussain, founder of the TTXGP, which two years ago was the world's first electric superbike race on the Isle of Man. "The renegade is in the fold."


Brammo gets electric motorcycles in gear

Mission R electrifies Long Beach International Motorcycle Show

Isle of Man's love affair with motorcycle racing

-- Susan Carpenter

Photo: Lightning Motors on the Infineon Raceway track at the 2010 North American TTXGP. Credit: Jules Cisek.

Brammo gets electric motorcycles in gear

Brammoengage Production electric motorcycles have been on the U.S. market for three years, but sales have yet to take off. Their high price, coupled with limited speed, restricted range and an all-but-stalled economy, have relegated them to the realm of moneyed early adopters and hardcore greenies.

But Brammo, in Ashland, Ore., announced Wednesday what it hopes will be a game-changer. In an effort to reach the enthusiast market, it is partnering with an Italian firm to add six-speed transmissions, and a performance edge, to its electric motorcycles.

Brammo's one existing model, the Enertia, does not have a transmission. It's a direct drive, single-speed, as are all the other production electric motorcycles currently on the market, including those from Zero Motorcycles in Santa Cruz and Native Cycles in Oakland.

"The transmission moves electric motorcycles from being the electric part of the category to being at least the same or in some cases way better than gas in terms of performance," said Brammo founder and CEO Craig Bramscher. "Now you can pull in the clutch and rev it just like a regular motorcycle. When you dump the clutch, you get all the benefits of a gas bike: fun factor and rideability."

The new integrated electric transmission, or IET, will be incorporated into four new off-road models Brammo announced Wednesday -- the $9,995 Engage MX mini moto; the $9,995 Engage SMR super moto; the $11,995 Engage SMS super moto; and the Encite MMX Pro mini moto, pricing for which was not announced. The new dirt bikes will go into production in 2012.


2011 motorcycle sales increase after two years of declines 

Brammo Enertia Plus doubles the range, not the price tag

Mission R electrifies Long Beach International Motorcycle Show

-- Susan Carpenter

Photo: Brammo Engage. Credit: Brammo Inc.

Consumer Confidential: iPad 2 sales top expectations, the high cost of being rich

Ipadpic Here's your mellow-yellow Monday roundup of consumer news from around the Web:

--Despite the doom and gloom from overseas, Apple had a good weekend as consumers snapped up the new-and-improved iPad 2. Some estimates place sales of the gadget at as much as 1 million -- an extraordinary figure compared with the 28 days it took the original iPad to reach that milestone. The iPad 2 went on sale in the United States on Friday evening at Apple stores, AT&T and Verizon Wireless outlets, as well as Target, Wal-Mart and Best Buy stores. Analysts said it quickly became difficult to find an iPad 2 over the weekend as available supplies were quickly snapped up. Apple says it's doing its best to ensure that everyone who wants one of the devices will get it as soon as possible.

--What does a million bucks buy? Apparently not a feeling of being rich. A survey of millionaires by Fidelity Investments finds that if you want to feel like you've got some dough, you need at least $7.5 million. The more than 1,000 households surveyed had an average of $3.5 million in investable assets. About 42% said they don’t feel wealthy, saying they would need about $7.5 million to feel rich. The 58% of respondents who said they do feel wealthy were younger on average and have a greater number of remaining years in the workforce. There are about 5.5 million U.S. households with at least $1 million in assets, or about 5% of the population. Millionaires control 56% of the country’s wealth, according to Fidelity.

-- David Lazarus

Photo: Consumers couldn't get their hands on the new iPad 2 fast enough. Credit: Paul Beaty/AP


Apple iPhones reportedly fumble daylight saving time switch


The iPhone is a marvel of modern technology -- it can stream movies, edit video and even turn your voice into an R&B singer. Apparently, though, it has trouble telling time.

When daylight saving time kicked in Sunday, some Apple iPhones reportedly failed to jump ahead an hour and catch up.

Venting their frustrations on Twitter, some users complained that their phones fell back or ahead an hour or two over the weekend.

Erin Wormsbecker, a Twitter user from Vancouver, wrote:

I wish the clock on my #iPhone would stop paying games and fix itself!

Apple officials were unavailable for comment Sunday afternoon to address the reports. But, problems with an iPhone clock aren't particularly new for owners of the popular smart phone.

In January, some iPhone owners complained that the switch from 2010 to 2011 caused malfunctioning alarms for a run of about three days and daylight-saving-related problems also took place in November.

Another Tweeter, identifying herself as Dolores from Arizona (where there is no daylight saving time), also complained of clock problems, stating:

My iPhone was trippin this mornin. It set my clock an hr ahead, but I live in az

A Twitter user and iPhone owner named Jim Bass was dismayed his iPhone's clock actually worked Sunday morning, tweeting:

I have to admit that I was surprised when my iPhone alarm clock actually worked this morning. Set 2 other alarms just in case


Computer viruses and phony restaurant inspections: Your weekly ScamWatch

U.S. stock market shrugs off earthquake in Japan

-- Nathan Olivarez-Giles

Photo: Customers browse Apple iPhones at the company's Sanlitun store in Beijing.

Credit: Nelson Ching / Bloomberg

Consumer Confidential: FDA pulling cold pills, Verizon switching rates, Ford recalling pickups

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

--Federal authorities are cracking down on untested cold medicines. The Food and Drug Administration says it will remove roughly 500 unapproved cold and allergy medications from the market as part of an ongoing probe into ineffective prescription drugs. The FDA requires companies to submit all new prescription drugs for scientific review before they are launched. However, thousands of drugs predate the FDA's drug regulations and have escaped scrutiny for decades. Most of the drugs targeted by the latest action are pills using untested combinations of decongestant and cough-suppressing ingredients. Among the medications listed by the FDA are products like Pediahist, a cold formula labeled for patients as young as 1 month old. FDA regulations do not recommend cold medicines for any children under age 2. Other drugs combine two varieties of the same ingredient, such as an allergy reliever/antihistamine. Regulators called such combinations "irrational," and warned that they could cause excessive drowsiness.

--Can you say "bait and switch"? Verizon says it will drop its unlimited data plan for the iPhone this summer and roll out tiered pricing instead. The move appears to be timed to the release of the next version of the superhot iPhone, known at the moment only as "iPhone 5." Speaking at an investment conference, a senior Verizon exec acknowledged that the company used its unlimited $30-a-month data plan to attract customers to the new Verizon iPhone. Now that those customers are aboard, the company is apparently content to slap them with tiered pricing that would charge higher fees to people who use more bandwidth.

--Ford is recalling about 35,000 pickup trucks and crossover vehicles because of possible fuel leaks and electrical shorts that could lead to fires. The automaker says the recall includes about 25,000 2010 Ranger pickups and involves fixing potential problems with the fuel line. Separately, Ford is recalling more than 9,000 trucks and crossovers to fix a software problem that could lead to an electrical short and overheating. Both problems run a risk of fire erupting, though no fires or injuries have been reported. The recall involves 2011 model years of the Ford Edge and Lincoln MKX crossovers and the Ford F150, F250, F350, F450, F550 trucks.

-- David Lazarus

Photo: The FDA says some drug combinations are "irrational." Credit: Alex Nabaum / For the Times


Consumer Confidential: Apple unveils subscriptions, retail sales lag, Delta's forever miles

Beatlespic Here's your till-I-met-you Tuesday roundup of consumer news from around the Web:

--Apple's plans for media-world domination continue. The company is introducing a long-awaited subscription service for videos, music, magazines and, yes, newspapers. Users sign up through Apple's site, and Apple keeps 30% of the fees from participating media companies. According to Reuters, publishers can set the price and length of a subscription, but Apple will process all payments. In other words, customers who want to sign up for, say, Netflix would still be able to do so through the Netflix website, in which case Netflix would keep the full fee; or they could subscribe through the applications in their iPhone or iPad, which would cost Netflix nearly a third of its fees. It'll be interesting to see which avenue most digital consumers choose to take.

--Meanwhile, back in the non-digital world, retailers posted a seventh straight month of sales gains, although the results were less than some analysts had been expecting. According to the BBC, U.S. retail sales rose by 0.3%, less than analysts' expectations of a 0.6% increase, as extreme weather in large parts of the country kept some shoppers at home. On an annual basis, retail sales were up 7.8% from January 2010. The Commerce Department also revised December's increase down to 0.5%, from an initial estimate of 0.6%. Economists had been hoping that a cut in payroll taxes would result in stronger January sales, but consumers apparently chose to pocket their tax windfall, rather than go on a shopping spree.

--Airlines might be jacking up fees, but at least one is trying to be a bit friendlier when it comes to miles. Delta Air Lines has gotten rid of expirations for its SkyMiles program. Previously, miles expired after 24 months if there wasn't any qualifying mileage activity during that time, such as the earning or redeeming of miles. As of Jan. 1, SkyMiles won't expire for lack of activity. "We know how much customers value their miles, so eliminating mileage expiration is a major win for them," Jeff Robertson, vice president of Delta's SkyMiles division, told CNN. Delta says it's now the only major U.S. carrier whose mileage program doesn't peter out. Needless to say, if this results in more business, every other major carrier will be quick to follow suit.

-- David Lazarus

Photo: Apple is now offering subscriptions for digital downloads. Credit: Mike Segar / Reuters


Consumer Confidential: Clothing prices rising, cellphones go 3-D, best grocery baggers meet

Clothespic Here's your marmoset Monday roundup of consumer news from around the Web:

-- The economy may be mending, but it'll be pricier to look sharp. According to the Associated Press, clothing prices are expected to rise about 10% in coming months. Cotton has more than doubled in price over the last year, hitting all-time highs. The price of other synthetic fabrics has jumped roughly 50% as demand for alternatives and blends has risen. Brooks Brothers' wrinkle-free men's dress shirts now cost $88, up from $79.50. Levi Strauss, Wrangler jeans maker VF Corp., JCPenney, Nike and designer shoe seller Steve Madden also plan increases. More specifics on price increases are expected when clothing retailers report financial results this month. I'm thinking I can get a bit more mileage out of my old khakis.

-- Consumers haven't exactly embraced the notion of 3-D TV sets, but a leading electronics company is gambling that what we really want is 3-D cellphones. According to the Associated Press, LG Electronics has demonstrated a phone with a 3-D screen and a 3-D camera. The device is set to go on sale later in the  spring. The screen produces the illusion of depth without the need for special glasses and includes a pair of five-megapixel lenses for taking 3-D photos and video. But like those 3-D pictures that have been held just so, the new phone must be held at the proper distance and angle for the viewer to perceive depth. Anyone remember when cellphones were basically just for phone calls?

-- And in case you didn't know, the country's best grocery baggers are meeting to determine -- finally -- who's the best. According to the Associated Press, baggers from 21 states are gathering in Las Vegas to go toe to toe as part of the National Grocery Assn. conference. The big event is being held Monday afternoon at the Mirage resort. The baggers will have to pack an assortment of jars, cans, boxes and loaves of bread in reusable bags. They'll be judged on speed, attitude, appearance, weight distribution and technique. The winner will receive $10,000. Second place will receive $5,000. And third, fourth and fifth places will all receive $1,000. I just wonder if there will be bonus points for helping people get eggs home unbroken.

-- David Lazarus

Photo: Looking sharp (like "Gossip Girl" stars Blake Lively, left, and Leighton Meester) may get tougher as clothing prices rise. Credit: Giovanni Rufino / The CW


Consumer Confidential: Verizon iPhone hot, gas prices not, Corning glass on spot

Iphonepic Here's your figure-it-out Friday roundup of consumer news from around the Web:

--How much interest is there in a non-AT&T iPhone? Well, Verizon began taking preorders this week for its iPhone, and had to start turning people away after less than a day. According to Reuters, Verizon ceased iPhone sales Thursday evening after inventory it had set aside for existing customers ran out. Preorders for the Verizon iPhone began at 3 a.m. Thursday and broke the company's record for a first-day launch in just two hours. Verizon's launch of the iPhone ends AT&T's more than three years' of exclusive U.S. rights to the device. Clearly there's a bit of, shall we say, pent-up demand for a new service provider.

--Egypt might seem far away, but the impact of uncertainty in the region will hit close to home. The Associated Press reports that gas prices are likely to creep higher as a result of the turmoil. The national average for a gallon of regular gasoline is $3.124, up 2.4 cents in the past week. Analysts expect prices to stay at $3 a gallon or higher — perhaps rising as much as 8 cents over the next two weeks — until the conflict in Egypt is resolved and tensions ease in neighboring countries. Higher energy prices will also drive up distribution costs for most goods, putting an even bigger bite on consumers.

--In a classic example of how the impact of popular products can ripple through the business world, glass maker Corning says it expects annual revenue to grow more than 50% by 2014 as a result of surging demand for ultra-thin glass used in TV monitors, smart phones and touch-screen tablets. According to AP, the company predicts the global appetite for LCD TVs and mobile devices will drive up LCD-glass industry volume to around 5 billion square feet in 2014 from more than 3 billion square feet now. Corning accounts for more than 60% of the LCD glass market. Something to think about when you're stroking the smooth surface of that new Verizon iPhone.

-- David Lazarus

Photo: Demand for the Verizon iPhone is so strong, the company is turning people away. Credit: Brendan McDermid / Reuters



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