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Consumer Confidential: IRS cash, hot TVs, Siri's abortion stance

Here's your theme-from-Shaft Thursday roundup of consumer news from around the Web:

-- The Internal Revenue Service may have some cash for you. The Tax Man has $153 million in undelivered refund checks looking for the right homes. The IRS says there are 99,123 taxpayers to whom the checks weren’t delivered because it had the wrong mailing address. The returned checks average $1,547 apiece. It’s an annual exercise for the IRS, which has been nudging taxpayers toward accepting their refunds through direct, electronic deposits to their bank accounts. Out of the nearly 103 million refunds the IRS issued through early June this year, 76 million were direct deposits. Taxpayers hoping to claim their refund can click on the “Check on Your Refund” link at, or call (800) 829-1954. (Associated Press)

-- The latest economic indicator: Pricey TVs are hot. Wal-Mart says TVs are among the top gifts people are putting on layaway at its 3,000-plus U.S. stores during the holiday season. The Westinghouse 46-inch LCD HDTV that was on sale for half off at Target for $298 was a top seller during the start to the season last weekend. And Abt Electronics already has sold out of 55-inch Samsung LED TVs that were marked down by half to $1,099. TV sales had slowed as consumers tightened their budgets, and technologies such as 3-D failed to spark people's interest the way tablet computers and smartphones have. But now shoppers are responding to the discounts of up to 50%. That's going to make Santa's sleigh a whole lot heavier. (Associated Press)

-- Apple says Siri isn't really so anti-abortion after all. The apparent inability of the virtual assistant in the iPhone 4S to come up with info about abortion clinics and women's health services in some areas was not intentional or deliberate, the company says. Apple attributed the problem to kinks in the software that are still being ironed out. Siri's odd behavior was first noted earlier this week by several bloggers who found that they were not able to get complete or accurate results when searching for information about reproductive health services. When asked to find an abortion clinic in Manhattan, for example, Siri's answer is: "Sorry, I couldn't find any abortion clinics." (New York Times)

-- David Lazarus

Photo: The IRS has a pile of unpaid refunds for taxpayers. Credit: Ed Stein / United Media


Pizza Hut to offer DirecTV at some of its restaurants

Some Pizza Hut customers will soon be able to get dinner and TV shows all in the confines of the fast-food restaurant.

NPC International Inc., the world’s largest Pizza Hut franchisee, has started installing satellite TV in hundreds of its Pizza Hut locations across the nation. The Overland Park, Kan., company has partnered with Bulk TV & Internet, a supplier of DirecTV services, to offer diners television programming with their hand-tossed pizza.

Pizza Hut is the latest fast-food chain to offer television and cable service. Last month, McDonald’s announced it was launching the McDonald’s Channel, a digital network that will run local school sports, movie previews and human interest stories.  The venture, which has already rolled out in San Diego, Los Angeles and Las Vegas, will be set up in 800 McDonald’s restaurants in Southern and Central California in the next few months.

NPC International operates 1,152 Pizza Hut franchises 28 in states. The company expects the installations to be completed by the end of next year.


Would you like TV with that Big Mac?

As income rises, so does fast-food consumption, study finds

Rainforest Cafe owner Landry's to buy McCormick & Schmick's

-- Angel Jennings

Photo: Mario Liberati loads his plate with pizza at a Carson-area Pizza Hut restaurant. Credit: Michael Edwards / Los Angeles Times

Consumer Confidential: Netflix down, food prices up, masks recalled

Here's your turn-the-beat-around Tuesday roundup of consumer news from around the Web:

-- Netflix is still smarting from its screwups. The company's shares plunged 35% after the one-time Wall Street favorite revealed a massive departure of subscribers angered by price increases and other questionable changes at the rental service that was created to make entertainment a snap. Netflix revealed late Monday that it ended September with 23.8 million U.S. subscribers. That's down about 800,000 from June and worse than what the company had hinted at before. In September, the company predicted it will lose about 600,000 U.S. customers. And it may get worse. Netflix said it expects more defections in coming months. Clearly this company better come up with some good news, and soon, or more people will jump ship.

-- Your grocery bill is still going up. The government says food prices are expected to climb by as much as 4.5% this year, an increase of one-half of a percentage point from its prior forecast, as higher commodity costs continue to filter down to consumers. The estimate comes after months of increases in individual items, particularly meat and poultry. Pork and beef prices have soared to record highs this year as surging export demand, particularly from China, has driven prices higher even while domestic demand remained sluggish. A jump in grain prices, which increases the cost of feeding livestock, has driven the broader jump in food prices this year.

-- Heads up: There's a recall of Halloween masks. Target is recalling about 3,400 children's frog masks because they lack proper ventilation. When secured in place across a child's face, the mask poses a risk of suffocation. The Chinese-made masks were sold at Target outlets nationwide from August through September for about $1. If you bought one, return the mask to any Target for a full refund.

-- David Lazarus

Photo: Netflix is getting slammed by investors for losing subscribers. Credit: Paul Sakuma / Associated Press


Consumer Confidential: Netflix says oops; iPhone orders

Here's your misfit-toys Monday roundup of consumer news from around the Web:

-- Give Netflix points for knowing it was wrong. The company says it will drop plans to split its mail-order DVD and Internet-streaming services. The change is an acknowledgment of the anger that Netflix triggered in subscribers, first with Chief Executive Reed Hastings’ plan to raise prices and the subsequent Sept. 18 announcement detailing the split of the services. Customers will be able to access the streaming and mail-order services from, with one account and password, the company says. Netflix on Sept. 18 said people who wanted DVDs would have to sign up for a new service called Qwikster, requiring a separate account and billing. Now if the company could just do something about getting more up-to-date movies.

-- Dr Pepper prefers hanging out with guys. That's apparently the idea behind Dr Pepper Ten, a 10-calorie soft drink Dr Pepper Snapple Group is rolling out with a macho ad campaign that proclaims, "It's not for women." The soft drink was developed after the company's research found that men shy away from diet drinks that aren't perceived as "manly" enough. To appeal to men, Dr Pepper made its Ten drink 180 degrees different from Diet Dr Pepper. It has calories and sugar, unlike its diet counterpart. Instead of the dainty tan bubbles on the diet can, Ten will be wrapped in gunmetal grey packaging with silver bullets. And while Diet Dr Pepper's marketing is women-friendly, the ad campaign for Ten goes out of its way to eschew women. So there.

-- Apple took some heat for not unveiling an iPhone 5 but, instead, debuting an upgraded iPhone 4S. But apparently the company knew what it was doing. Apple says first-day preorders of the iPhone 4S topped 1 million, breaking the record set by last year's model. Apple and various phone companies started taking orders for the phone last Friday. It hits stores this Friday. First-day orders for the iPhone 4 were 600,000 when it launched last year. It was then sold in the U.S. only by AT&T. The iPhone 4S is also sold by Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel. The base model of the iPhone 4S costs $200 with a two-year contract. It has a faster processor and an improved camera compared to last year's model.

-- David Lazarus

Photo: Netflix is dropping plans for a Qwikster service. Credit: Paul Sakuma / Associated Press


Consumer Confidential: Self-checkouts, online videos, free checking

Supermarket checkout
Here's your mystic-pizza Monday roundup of consumer news from around the Web:

--Do you find self-checkouts at the supermarket to be more hassle than they're worth? So do some supermarkets. Big Y Foods, which has 61 locations in Connecticut and Massachusetts, recently became one of the latest to announce it was phasing out the self-serve lanes. Some other regional chains and major players, including some Albertsons locations, have also reduced their unstaffed lanes and added more clerks to traditional lanes. Studies cited by the Food Marketing Institute found only 16% of supermarket transactions in 2010 were done at self-checkout lanes in stores that provided the option. That's down from a high of 22% three years ago. Clearly most shoppers still favor the human touch.

--There's more scrambling afoot in the online-video world. Netflix has inked a pact with DreamWorks Animation SKG giving it exclusive pay-TV distribution rights for first-run films starting with the studio's 2013 lineup, while landed a deal with 20th Century Fox to provide movies and TV shows to bring its Amazon Prime streaming service to more than 11,000 titles. Financial terms of the agreements were not disclosed. Netflix is struggling to retain subscribers after raising prices and splitting the company into two separate services. Last week, satellite-TV provider Dish Network resurrected its Blockbuster brand as a streaming service.

--Free checking has become an endangered species. But it's still out there. A new study by finds that only 45% of checking accounts are free this year. That's down sharply from 65% last year and 76% two years ago. But the study also found that most banks are willing to waive monthly fees when customers meet certain conditions. For example, customers may have to set up direct deposit or maintain a certain balance. The study also found that the average cost for using an out-of-network ATM rose slightly to $3.81. That's including the fees charged by the customer's own bank and the ATM operator.

-- David Lazarus

Photo: Supermarket shoppers go through the traditional checkout. Credit: Damon Winter / Los Angeles Times


Consumer Confidential: Blockbuster, man caves, zodiac salaries

Blockbuster-Dish Network Internet video service
Here's your feelin'-groovy Friday roundup of consumer news from around the Web:

--Heads up, Netflix. Dish Network is announcing an Internet video service that will try to woo away subscribers. The service will be offered through Blockbuster, the video-store chain that Dish Network bought out of bankruptcy court for $321 million five months ago. Netflix's success as a subscription service that mails rented DVDs and streams video over high-speed Internet connections played a pivotal role in Blockbuster's downfall. Now Dish and Blockbuster are apparently hoping for a little payback as Netflix faces a customer backlash triggered by changes to its prices and format. Dish says its Blockbuster service will be "a stream come true." We'll see.

--Good news, guys: A man cave in the basement won't detract from the resale value of your home. "As long as you don't make it too specific, there tends to be a resale market for man caves," said Stephanie Rauterkus, a professor of accounting and finance at the University of Alabama-Birmingham. "No matter how crazy you get, there tends to be at least one or two other people in the world who have that same kind of craziness." Still, she says there are some rules to follow if you want your man cave to be a true real-estate asset: First, stay sane with the cost. Only spend what you can afford. Second, stay sane with the decor -- in case you move or your team preferences change. Finally, stay sane with the decision. Sleep on it as you would for all major purchases.

--Which zodiac signs rake in the biggest bucks? A new survey by CareerBuilder finds that Virgos, Aries and Scorpios tend to score six-figure salaries, while Capricorns and Leos are often vice presidents or higher (although at the highest levels, Capricorns edge them out). Middle management is filled with Aries, while those who fall into the Aquarius category tend to swim at the bottom in entry-level positions. Libras and those born under Taurus are more satisfied on the job than others. Also, first-borns and only children tend to pull in bigger paychecks, and middle children are more likely to hold low-level jobs. Is there anything to this? Post your comments.

-- David Lazarus

Photo: Will Blockbuster get a little payback from Netflix? Credit: Rick Wilking / Reuters

Television news, political talk to stream live on flights


Westlake Village-based Row 44 Inc., an in-flight broadband Internet provider, said it signed a deal with an array of television news and political talk stations to deliver live streaming video to onboard passengers.

Under the deal, passengers will be able to watch Fox News, MSNBC and BBC World News; live business news from CNBC, Fox Business Network and Bloomberg Television; and sports on NBC Sports Network.

It is the second major announcement for the firm in a week.

Last week, Row 44 inked a deal with Major League Baseball to stream live games to passengers’ smartphones, laptops, tablets and other Wi-Fi enabled devices.

Row 44, named after the last row on a DC-10 commercial jet, uses a network of telecommunications satellites belonging to Hughes Network Systems. By tapping into Hughes' network, Row 44 has the potential to provide worldwide Internet access.

The company has more than 40 employees spread across offices in Westlake Village, Las Vegas and Lombard, Ill.

Southwest Airlines is currently in the process of wiring its entire fleet with Row 44’s in-flight broadband system. The carrier is offering the service for $5.


MLB strikes deal to stream live games on flights

Row 44 strikes Wi-Fi deal with Southwest Airlines

Former Southwest Airlines senior manager joins Row 44

-- W.J. Hennigan

Photo: Row 44 Chief Executive John Guidon, left, and President Gregg Fialcowitz stand on the wings of the company's 1950 Grumman Albatross Seaplane that it uses for equipment testing. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times

Consumer Confidential: Spending, Banana Republic, Apple TV

Gap Inc. store
Here's your hey-Mickey Monday roundup of consumer news from around the Web:

--We're shopping. Maybe not a whole lot, but we are shopping. Consumer spending rebounded in July as people bought more cars and other long-lasting items. Spending was up 0.8% over the month, the strongest increase in five months, following a revised 0.1% fall in June, according to the Commerce Department. July's boost was stronger than the 0.5% rise economists had expected. Adjusted for inflation, spending rose 0.5%. Consumption is a critical driver of U.S. economic growth, accounting for about two-thirds of gross domestic product, so July's rebound strikes a positive note for the beleaguered recovery -- that is, if we keep shopping through the second half of the year.

--How do you say "Banana Republic" in French? Gap Inc. plans to open its first Banana Republic store in France in early December. The clothing company, whose other brands include Old Navy and its namesake, says the store will be in Paris on the chic Avenue des Champs Elysees. Gap says the store is part of its international growth strategy. "With loyal customers across Europe, both in our stores and online, we are confident that Banana Republic's proposition of affordable luxury will resonate well with Parisian customers," said Stephen Sunnucks, president of Gap's international division. Last week, Gap also announced that it plans to open stores in Vietnam and Guam. Do they wear khakis in Guam?

--Is there an Apple TV in your future? The website VentureBeat reports that "Apple is almost certainly working on a digital television based on its iOS operating system, according to multiple sources in Silicon Valley." An Apple TV would allow people to do many things with their televisions they can't do now. The most important of these would probably be the ability to run Apple apps. This would permit consumers to download applications from Apple's store, which has hundreds of thousands of products. The Apple TV would allow people to switch from Facebook to Google to their calendars all on one device in the living room. The big question for me: Will you have to touch the screen to change channels?

-- David Lazarus

Photo: Gap Inc. says it will open a Banana Republic store in Paris. Credit: Jae C. Hong / Associated Press

Consumer Confidential: Abercrombie's situation, tobacco ad suit

Cigpic Here's your won't-get-fooled-again Wednesday roundup of consumer news from around the Web:

--Abercrombie & Fitch may no longer be welcome at "Jersey Shore." The clothing company's stock price took a tumble after it offered the reality-show star Michael "The Situation" Sorrentino and other members of the program "substantial payment" if they stopped wearing Abercrombie-branded clothes. Abercrombie says: "We are deeply concerned that Mr. Sorrentino's association with our brand could cause significant damage to our image. We understand that the show is for entertainment purposes, but believe this association is contrary to the aspirational nature of our brand, and may be distressing to many of our fans." The retailer says it has also "extended this offer to other members of the cast."

--Tobacco companies don't want people to know the grisliest consequences of smoking. Four of the five largest cigarette makers want a judge to put a stop to new graphic cigarette labels that include the sewn-up corpse of a smoker and pictures of diseased lungs, saying they unfairly urge adults to shun their legal products and will cost millions to produce. They also say the warnings violate their free speech rights. The companies say the warnings no longer simply convey facts to allow people to make a decision on whether to smoke. They instead force them to put government anti-smoking advocacy more prominently on their packs than their own brands. The Food and Drug Administration refused to comment, saying the agency does not discuss pending litigation.

--Heads up: Tens of thousands of tabletop feeding chairs for babies and toddlers are being recalled amid safety concerns. The Consumer Product Safety Commission says the "Metoo" clip-on chairs imported by Colorado-based phil&teds USA, can unexpectedly detach from a table, sending the chair and possibly the child in it plummeting to the floor. The company and the Consumer Product Safety Commission have received 19 reports of the chairs falling from table surfaces, including five reports with injuries. Two of the injuries involved pinched and cut fingers. The three other injuries involved bruising after a chair detached suddenly and a child struck the table or floor. About 54,000 of the chairs are being recalled.

-- David Lazarus

Photo: Tobacco companies have a message about cigarette warnings. Credit: AFP/Getty Images


Consumer Confidential: Pay TV, check cashing, federal rentals

Tvpic Here's your wink-wink Wednesday roundup of consumer news from around the Web:

--One way that people are adjusting to these tough economic times is by cutting the pay-TV cord. Viewers are canceling or forgoing cable and satellite TV subscriptions in record numbers, according to an analysis of the companies' quarterly earnings reports. The U.S. subscription-TV industry first showed a small net loss of subscribers a year ago. This year that trickle has turned into a stream. The chief cause appears to be persistently high unemployment and a housing market that has many people living with their parents, reducing the need for a separate cable bill. But it's also possible that people are canceling cable, or never signing up in the first place, because they're watching cheap Internet video. If so, viewers can expect more restrictions on online video as TV companies and Hollywood studios try to make sure that they get paid for what they produce.

--Wal-Mart is getting deeper into the check-cashing business. Like it does on most products and services, Wal-Mart's check-cashing fees largely undercut those charged by a typical check-cashing outlet, where consumers pay an average of 2% to 4% of the face value of the check to cash it. "This expanded program now enables Wal-Mart to bring everyday low price cashing services to more customers who have a need for immediate access to their cash," says Daniel Eckert, head of Wal-Mart Financial Services. That's nice. But it also highlights the fact that many people don't have access to the banking system and thus have to pay additional fees just to get their cash.

--Uncle Sam may be expanding as a landlord. The Obama administration is considering turning thousands of government-owned foreclosures into rental properties to help boost falling home prices. The Federal Housing Finance Agency says it is seeking input from investors on how to rent roughly 300,000 homes owned by government-controlled mortgage companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and the Federal Housing Administration. All of the homes are in foreclosure. The government rescued the two mortgage giants in September 2008 and has funded them since the financial crisis. Fannie and Freddie own or guarantee about half of the nation's mortgages and nearly all new mortgages. The homes include single-family homes and condos.

-- David Lazarus

Photo: More TV viewers are saying "no thanks" to cable and satellite subscriptions.

NBC holds on to the Olympics [video]


NBC said today it won the rights to broadcast the Olympics through 2020 for a whopping $4.38 billion.Why would the network make such a big bid when it lost money on the Vancouver games? Reporter Joe Flint explains in the video, above, and in his Company Town blog post.



NBC expected to announce deal for Olympics

New NBC Sports chief Mark Lazarus is no stranger to big deals

Comcast to invest additional $300 million for NBCUniversal programming


--Pat Benson


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