The Checkout

My Name is Annys

This marks my first appearance as the voice behind The Checkout.

A brief introduction: I come to the consumer beat after covering a motley assortment of topics for the business section, including Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Dan Snyder's proxy fight for Six Flags Inc. and local media companies.

(In case you're wondering, Annys is pronounced ANN-is, like Janice without the J. It's from a name dictionary--a last minute substitution for Peter.)

If you're faithful readers of this blog, you know that I have some big shoes to fill. Caroline--we're all on a first-name basis here in blog land, aren't we?--created the consumer affairs beat at The Washington Post and she launched this blog.

She's not totally abandoning us, but staying in the blogosphere, where we're sure to hear from her again. In the meantime, I plan to keep talking about some of the topics Caroline has raised here and in the newspaper, such as marketing to children. Plus, I'll delve into some of the absurdities of being a modern consumer. After all, consumer advocates are fond of saying this is the best and the worst time in history to be a consumer. The best, in the sense that you have more information at your fingertips than ever before, and the worst because you have to endure things like typing in your 16-digit account number to reach a human being who then asks you for your 16-digit account number.

In this space, I intend to tackle everything from burning laptops and mystery cell phone bill charges to counter-telemarketing scripts and how food manufacturers make kids love Fruity Pebbles. Product safety, marketing practices, customer service, government regulation, recourse for consumers--these are all subjects I expect to visit on a regular basis.

Mostly, though, I'd like to hear from you. You can start by telling me this: What are the sorts of consumer issues you think I should write about?

By Annys Shin |  September 11, 2006; 7:00 AM ET Etc.
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Comments

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Blister packs. Inconvenient, difficult, dangerous! Ban them! Whatever happened to cardboard?

Posted by: Anonymous | September 11, 2006 9:03 AM

Mile long receipts.

Posted by: bkp | September 11, 2006 9:39 AM

Those mail in refunds. Do they really intend to ever pay them?

Posted by: turboalto | September 11, 2006 9:45 AM

Welcome, I would like to see more about the good sides of consumer interaction, so that people can learn. We all have the terrible Comcast, Verizon, or XXX telecom/cable company. Its important to talk about those firms, but more important to talk about firms that serve us well and how that befits us all.

For example if you are going to talk about wireless firms, make sure that you also highlight one that does the job well. Maybe ask the question why does say Sprint rank low on customer satisfaction, where Virgin Mobile who uses Sprint's network ranks much higher (this comparison is made up other than that they use the same network)? What is Virgin doing that other CEO's can imitate.

In the past years, the leaders of major companies have imitated others down the cost cutting road, now you are in a position to help them imitate others down the quality customer service road.

Good luck, also some time could you write about what you do? Is this blog and your columns a full time job? Thanks

Posted by: Arlington, VA | September 11, 2006 10:13 AM

I'd like to demystify utility bills, look at the politics of locating grocery stores around the DC metro area (i.e. none in the Penn Quarter, ho-hum Safeway and Giant in the inner burbs, and Wegmans for the Richy Riches of Fairfax County), and hear about auto repair shops in the areas (which are reputable, and which are known for scamming you?)

Posted by: CyanSquirrel | September 11, 2006 10:26 AM

Welcome! Basic question that has always puzzled me: how do you pronounce your first name? Is it Ahn-niss or Ahn-ese?

I would also like to hear of ways for consumers to 'beat the system'-- I loved it when Caroline told us about getahuman.com, how to avoid automatic voice response systems.

Posted by: Bethesda MD | September 11, 2006 10:51 AM

I'd love to see some discussion on why grocery stores in Washington DC are so terrible. I was holding out high hopes for the new SuperGiant on Wisconsin and Western; I've been once and I really have no desire to go back. Why do people put up with poor produce and empty shelves? We had to go to three stores this weekend in order to complete our grocery shopping (Giant, Trader Joe's and CVS) and really needed to go to Safeway, too, but I refused. Washington DC is a relatively affluent area. People here are short on time. Give us one good supermarket with parking that one can get in and out of easily and we will shop there. Come on Kroger, take on the challenge of DC!

Posted by: Amy | September 11, 2006 11:20 AM

Welcome Annys! I'm hopeful that we'll not be fed anti-consumer propaganda. You know, articles telling me that I'm a bad person for buying this-or-that. Give me facts and let me decide.

Thank you!

Posted by: Mark S. | September 11, 2006 11:48 AM

At first, thought you were making a consumer privacy joke about being anonymous.

Posted by: annys | September 11, 2006 11:56 AM

U.S. vs. other countries' public policy

When I was taking a marketing class at a Concordia University in Montreal in 1986 - I discovered something interesting. The Canadian government prohibits direct advertisement to children. (I don't know if this law still exist today). I think such a law should be enacted in this country for to prevent marketing junk food to kids.

Posted by: Dawn | September 11, 2006 1:40 PM

I'd like to second that mile-long grocery request. If I'm only buying one thing that's not on sale, I won't use my card because I only want a record of my transaction, not updates on gas or turkey points or anything else. And the mail-in rebate thing too. If you're so interested in giving us money back, why don't you give it up front?

Posted by: Steve | September 11, 2006 2:29 PM

To Steve -
They are not "so interested" in giving money back. They are interested in creating an incentive for you, the consumer, to make a purchase based on the fact that you will get something back. Obviously there is no RUSH, from their perspective, on paying these points, refunds, etc.

I would like to see an article on USE OF FREQUENT FLYER POINTS -- as to how difficult it is to actually use them and as to how rapidly the 'cost' in points seems to rise (eg United 'Standard' award is 50,000 miles for domestic ticket).

Posted by: Econ 101 | September 11, 2006 2:58 PM

Mail in rebates, its not for everyone, but you do get your money back. I've sent in about 200 mail in rebates, and so far have received all of them. I've only had to call in about 4 times, and each time they reissued my check. Overall I've saved over $2000 using mail in rebates.

Posted by: wg | September 11, 2006 3:22 PM

Welcome. My first thought is that I have no idea why Apple hasn't introduced a phone/iPod. Given what they've done with the iPod, I'd think they'd rule planet Earth with such a combination. Thanks.

Posted by: Baltimore | September 11, 2006 3:37 PM

Lousy customer service for everything from fast food to car repairs to home improvements to haircuts. I live in a rural county and thought bad service from retail clerks was based in Washington, DC. Now I've discovered it's all over the place. Like the sales clerk at a store at Landover Mall who was on a personal phone call the entire time she was doing my transaction. She never looked at me, spoke to me, or said thank you after I gave her money for a purchase. Then there's the car repair place that wouldn't take back a bad car battery only 3 months after installation -- I had to contact the battery manufacturer. Then there is the hairdresser who butchered my hair and I had to go to another stylist to get it fixed. I'm not saying the customer is always right, but if the customer is giving you money for a product or service, that product or service should be good. Now I'm dealing with a termite service that is supposed to follow up every 3-4 months to check bait traps. I renewed my contract and the last visit by a technician was April, 2005. They were scheduled to come last week, but a tropical storm kept them away. I have not heard back again. I have a contract with them to do this service; yeah, right. I'm paying for nuttin', honey.

Posted by: Southern Maryland | September 11, 2006 3:56 PM

Baltimore,

In re to your post about an Apple ipod/ phone combo, they're launching one soon.

Read:

http://observer.guardian.co.uk/uk_news/story/0,,1869042,00.html

Posted by: CPS | September 11, 2006 4:17 PM

Dawn's

U.S. vs. other countries' public policy

I would add to that ban TV ads for prescription pharmaceuticals. Aside from driving up healthcare costs, between those adds and OTC medicine ads, what's the message being set to our young children? For any problem, there's a pill you can pop to make it better. So much for the war on drugs.

Posted by: KBR | September 11, 2006 5:03 PM

Welcome Annys, you do have big shoes to fill but with much effort and dedication you may do it.

Can't wait to see your first effort.

I suggest a steady stream of basehits.

Posted by: im1dc | September 11, 2006 5:07 PM

I'm not certain if this falls into your portfolio, but I'd sure like someone to address why it is that when I make a contribution to some charitable organization or other, none of them ever seems just to thank me and move on. When I get an acknowledgement, it is inevitably accompanied by an "opportunity" to send more money. Granted, the cause is worthy - otherwise I wouldn't have made a donation in the first place - but if I could have sent more, I would have. Why do they spend money sending out unsolicited calendars and return address labels rather than putting our contributions to the good works they're supposed to be doing?

Posted by: cbo | September 11, 2006 5:15 PM

Here's a gripe about a recent change to the DMA's "Do Not Mail" Preference Service that I'm hoping you can investigate, Annys!

By now, most people are aware of the FTC's free "National Do Not Call Registry" (www.donotcall.gov or 1-888-567-8688) to greatly reduce telemarketing phone calls (with some exceptions, like calls from charities), good for 5 years. Also familiar is the free registry run by the major credit reporting bureaus, 1-888-5-OPT-OUT (1-888-567-8688), to eliminate those "pre-approved" credit card offers -- the ones that clog your mailbox and provide unnecessary fodder for identity thieves -- for either 5 years or permanently, your choice.

Less known is the Direct Marketing Association ("DMA"), representing the industry, which has for years maintained "do not call" and "do not mail" lists of its own. Although new sign-ups for the DMA Telephone Preference Service are pretty much being phased out by the end of 2006 (perhaps due to the overlap with the FTC's registry, rendering it moot?), the DMA Mail Preference database continues to be maintained as a way for DMA business members to know which consumers have chosen to "opt-out" of receiving unsolicited mail, so these businesses can update their own mailing lists accordingly.

Until recently, consumers have had two options to add their name and address to the DMA Mail Preference list: either pay a $5 "processing fee" to sign up online, or print out a form and mail it in for free (just the cost of the stamp), at the following site: http://www.dmaconsumers.org/cgi/offmailinglist

Now, the DMA is charging a $1 fee for registering -- even by mail. And, amazingly, they are calling it a "fraud prevention fee." Forgive me, maybe I am missing something here, but what kind of idiot Robin Hood would spend 39 cents per letter to mail in thousands of fraudulent opt-out addresses... and for what purpose? Consumer fraud that actually *helps* a consumer? That doesn't make any sense.

What makes more sense as a possible real reason behind the change in policy: the DMA now profits either way, by making consumers pay for the privilege of asking, online or by mail, for assistance in stopping unsolicited mailings from DMA members (disguising it as a "fraud prevention fee" adds an air of legitimacy)... and frankly, I suspect they are hoping the required fee will discourage consumers from signing up in the first place, allowing the mass mailings of the industry to continue to flow unimpeded.

Here is my burning question: if the FTC can maintain a free Do Not Call registry, and the major credit bureaus can maintain a free Opt-Out registry, why can't the DMA continue to offer a free Mail Preference Service???

Consumers should not have to pay to opt-out. Ever.

Posted by: KB | September 11, 2006 5:24 PM

Why can't supermarkets have a single line that feeds the checkouts? As soon as there is a foot or two of space on the belt, the next person in line goes to that checkout and starts unloading.

This would reduce the frustration of the "find the belt with the smallest amount of groceries and customer who looks like they'll be paying with a check or holding a wad of coupons" game. (And don't you hate when you go to look at another potentially-shorter line, decide it's worse, and go back to the original line only to find someone else joined it in the meantime?!) Even if you're an expert at that game, a common line to the checkouts would move quickly, thereby easing psychological angst due to the perception of constant progress (i.e., common lines move fast).

Posted by: Don Libes | September 11, 2006 5:46 PM

Jeez, you guys are concerned about long store receipts?? Must be nice.....

I would love to have more posts like the one Caroline posted (last week?) about how the Wall Street Journal and the plane ticket buying sites are trying to scam us with prices that go up because they're reading our cookies! I found that shocking and horrifying.

I would like to see more articles in general about variable pricing, or whatever it's called - the way the airlines do it. It's inscrutable, it's mysterious, you never know if you will get the lowest price by buying way in advance or waiting til the last minute. Can't pricing (and buying) be made a transparent, logical process? Should I always feel like I'm getting scammed one way or another?

Posted by: Vulture Breath | September 11, 2006 6:33 PM

Welcome! Coincidentally, we just launched new blog on consumer law and policy issues. Please check us out: http://www.citizen.org/clpblog

We'll surely be linking to your posts. Some of our content will probably of interest primarily to lawyers, law professors, activists and journalists who are very focused on and knowledgeable about consumer law and policy issues, but we also hope to provide more general-interest material for a wider audience.

Posted by: Deepak | September 11, 2006 9:09 PM

Re: blister packs
Aren't these supposed to be more tamper-proof, than regular pill bottles?

And while I'm on the subject, are drugstore generic brands REALLY the same product for a lesser cost? I've tried Albertson's generic 10 mg loratidine tablets, only to find out that they don't control my allergies half as well as Alavert's version of the same drug.

Posted by: Nicole | September 12, 2006 4:02 AM

Nicole - "blister packs" are those horrible hard plastic things they package electronics and stuff in. The ones you can't open without hacking with a knife and cutting your fingers on the plastic edges. Hate those things.

Posted by: h3 | September 12, 2006 10:47 AM


10 mg Loratidine is Claritin. That could be the difference.

Posted by: Anonymous | September 12, 2006 10:51 AM

Frankly, I care less about what you cover than that you cover it fairly. You fell down pretty conspicuously in that department when you wrote for City Paper, as when you wrote that asinine article (circa 2002) sneering at the Capitol Hill residents who objected to yet another fast-food outlet opening at 8th/H NE. (Note: The DC zoning board ultimately upheld the citizens' appeal, forcing that illegal operation to close.) One hopes you'll be giving consumer issues a more equitable treatment.

Posted by: mark | September 13, 2006 1:24 PM

Annys, my suggestion is as follows: The recalls.gov web site is terrible. It is usually very difficult to tell just from a title whether a recall affects you. "Minnesota firm recalls ground beef" is unhelpful if you have to read through the article to get the name of the firm and what exactly is being recalled. And, there's no rss feed there. In short, the site seems designed to make it difficult to find relevant information. It seems to me that the only reason not to title an article something like "[name of well-known co.] recalls [name of well-known product]" is that the companies want to avoid publicity. The site should be redone, or someone should do their own version, translating the nonsense-ees into consumer-friendly information.

Posted by: Boston, MA | September 14, 2006 10:39 AM

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