Facebook, openness and listening to your customers

I attended a Memorial Day parade with my family Saturday morning. My high school’s marching band made an appearance, which brought back a flood of memories. So I documented it the way I often do with these sorts of things, by uploading a picture and caption to my Facebook page.

Within minutes I was reminded of candy sales held 25 years ago to raise money to buy new uniforms, as well as a long-forgotten crack in a Sousaphone bell and how it got there. Old friends in other states were reminiscing with me, practically in real time, about things my memory had misplaced. It was another testament to the power of Facebook, the way the social networking platform bridges vast distances of time and place and powerfully connects people.

Coming as it did within days of Facebook announcing changes to its privacy policies, however, my warm remembrance also had a healthy streak of cynicism running through it.

Continue reading

Banking grades with Weiss Ratings

It’s no secret that banks are having a tough time these days. The FDIC has shut down 73 banks so far this year, and it shuttered 140 in 2009.

Consumers and businesses can get a handle on how their banks are doing by checking in with Weiss Ratings, a company that reviews banks and other businesses. (The company does not take money from the financial institutions it rates and it does not give them a chance to weigh in before it publishes its lists of strong and weak banks).

Here’s how they rate the banks:

Weiss Ratings are assigned by our analysts based on a complex analysis of hundreds of factors that are synthesized into five indexes: capitalization, asset quality, profitability, liquidity and stability. These indexes are then used to arrive at a letter grade rating. A good rating requires consistency across all indexes. A weak score on any one index can result in a low rating, as insolvency can be caused by any one of a number of factors, such as inadequate capital, poor underwriting practices, operating losses, or the failure of an affiliated company.

According to Weiss, 42 Maryland banks and thrifts got a grade of D or worse based on their financial stats last quarter. (D=weak, E=very weak, +=upper third of grade range, -=lower third of grade range).

Regular readers of the newspaper shouldn’t be surprised by most of the banks that earned Es. Aside from HarVest Bank(E+), all of them are under regulatory scrutiny, including Bay National Bank (E-); Colombo Bank (E+); 1st Mariner Bank (E-); and Ideal Federal Savings Bank (E+).

What often gets forgotten are the banks that are doing well. Continue reading

Xit Poll: so easy a caveman could do it

You know those white security tags stores attached to clothing to prevent theft? I met the guy that invented those in Las Vegas this weekend at the International Council of Shopping Centers’ RECon conference.

Larry K. Canipe, of Boca Raton, Fla.-based Cleva Technologies, said he tried retiring a few years ago after 25 years in the business – but it didn’t stick. Now he’s got a new product that he says is an easy way for retailers and other businesses to poll their customers while getting a much better return than traditional survey methods.

Xit (pronnounced “exit”) Poll was launched in 2009 and is a roughly five-pound stand that costs between $3 and $6 a day to run, depending on the quantity the business leases from Cleva Technologies. It takes about 30 seconds to assemble (I did it myself) and clients can upload via a Web server short surveys for their customers to take. Cleva Technologies charges for rental of the Xit Poll and processing of the data.

About 25 Xit Polls are stationed all over the Las Vegas Convention Center at this year’s RECon to gain feedback on the event’s effectiveness. Canipe said roughly 5 percent of passers by stop to take a survey on Xit Poll, compared with about .001 percent using other survey methods like phone calls or using the bottom of receipts to invite customers to fill out a survey for a chance to win a prize.

For mall owners looking to fill an anchor tenant space (like the Owings Mills Mall in 2008, when Boscov’s department store bowed out), the polling system can be used to ask customers what kind of retailer they’d like to see in the space. Canipe said New England-based Finard Properties recently did just that with one of its retail centers.

“That’s such an important space that it’s so key to find the right tenant for your customers,” Canipe said. “They got an overwhelming response.”

Other uses include getting public feedback after city council meetings or getting customer feedback in the restaurant and hospitality industry, colleges and universities and even financial institutions (Bank of America is a client).

Cleva Technologies also announced at RECon it is launching a new version of Xit Poll that prints out a coupon for survey takers as an added incentive to stop and answer the poll questions.

“So often the only feedback [customers take the time to tell businesses] is negative,” said Canipe. “This sort of levels that playing field.”

All that was missing was the plaid sports jacket

The first blog I ever wrote for The Daily Record, in August 2007, was about the first time in more than 26 years that I bought a new car from a non-family member.

So this weekend, my wife and I ventured into the used car arena.

One word: Oy.

The salesman at the first place we stopped was a complete dope. After telling him what we wanted to spend ($10,000), we admired a 2006 VW Jetta. The prices weren’t posted on the cars (which bugged me), so the salesdope had to run to get his price sheet. The Jetta was $15,000. I told him I was skeptical that he could get to $10,000, but he assured me he would check with his manager.

At the salesdope’s insistence — and against my better judgment — we test drove the car before he got the real price. And finally, about an hour later, he came back with the real price: more than $13,000. We walked out.

At the next dealership, things actually went well, up until the end. We found a Kia Spectra that we liked, that fit our budget (a little bit more than $10,000, but not 30 percent more). We struck a deal.

Then came the paperwork. And the paperwork showed a $750 “reconditioning charge.”

I didn’t think I had “sucker” stamped on my forehead.

I told the salesman I was very close to walking out. That we had a deal. He trotted out the, “well, I gave you the Internet price when you walked in, and we’re not making any money on the deal” line. (Does anyone actually believe that line?)

I told him I didn’t care. That he gave me a price, and that’s the price I would pay.

He offered to cut the reconditioning fee in half. I offered to walk out the door.

The reconditioning fee disappeared.

No names of dealerships here (although I thought long and hard about it). Not even any locations or brand names.

So is this typical? Am I just discovering what everyone who doesn’t have a relative in the car business already knows?

ICSC booths: does size matter?

I took a tour around the Las Vegas Convention Center Sunday morning as workers were putting the final touches on booths at the International Council of Shopping Centers’ real estate conference.

I walked by the Baltimore booth twice before I found it. Crammed between two huge corner booths, Baltimore’s booth may be small (realtors might call it “quaint” or “intimate”) but it’s purposeful. Continue reading

T-minus 44 minutes to medical attention

Waiting in the ER for care can be a guessing game.

It could be a relatively painless 20 minutes, or take hours. And, in some cases, the idea of a long wait might keep you from going to the hospital at all.

Now, patients in need of emergency care can tell how long they might sit and wait through a new web program offered by the emergency department at St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson. Continue reading

What a new ACC television deal could mean for UMd.

All an Atlantic Coast Conference spokeswoman and a spokesman for ESPN will say is “negotiations are ongoing.” Representatives from University of Maryland’s Department of Athletics won’t even talk about it.

But unconfirmed reports are running wild on the Internet and it appears Maryland and the ACC’s 11 other schools are due for a huge financial boon in 2011 as the conference nears a television deal that could increase each school’s share by roughly $7 million per year.

According to reports, the ACC has reached a 12-year, $1.86 billion television deal with sports giant ESPN, doubling the conference’s broadcast agreement with Raycom Sports and ESPN, which ends at the close of the 2010-2011 season.

Citing unnamed sources, the Sports Business Journal reported Monday that ESPN will pay the ACC $155 million a year to broadcast the conference’s football and basketball games through the 2022-23 season, more than double the approximately $75 million the ACC is making now.

Charlotte-based Raycom will continue its long association with the ACC by subleasing games from ESPN for regional syndication.

Maryland’s Department of Athletics serves 27 sports teams and has an annual expense budget of approximately $55 million, according to the school.

Translation: $7 million more a year will put each school’s share at about $13 million. That’ll make a nice difference for a school considered to have a mid-sized budget. And let’s not forget the cuts Maryland had to make in this most recent year’s athletics budget (for more details click here.)

And for the cherry on top of the sundae, rumors have it that Maryland could get an even bigger slice of  conference revenue sharing pie — but not with the ACC. According to The (Newport News, Va.) Daily Press’ Teel Time blog, the Big Ten Conference’s planned realignment could include Maryland. No one’s saying anything yet (again, unnamed sources cited here) but money-wise it’s huge: Big Ten schools receive about $22 million per year.

For you math nerds, that would be a near-quadrupling of Maryland’s conference money (although Maryland would have to play in a historically much tougher conference).

Either way it appears good financial times are ahead for Maryland athletics. Now about that football team

Does Visit Baltimore need to find its happy place?

A reader left a comment on our website Friday criticizing the “horrible reporting in this town.” The subject? The city tourism organization’s “Find Your Happy Place in Baltimore” advertising campaign, which Daily Record business reporter Melody Simmons writes about in today’s paper.

The campaign launched Thursday at the Inner Harbor with the aid of 261 people who helped form the world’s largest smiley face. That’s according to the Guinness Book of World Records; you can look it up.

Anyway, our helpful reader included a link to an e-mail sent out by Visit Baltimore to its roughly 700 members and partners who subscribe to its e-newsletter. It gets right to the point, in a not-so-happy way.

“As we are preparing to kick off what promises to be an exciting tourism season in Baltimore, it is disheartening that we must deal with unnecessary distractions and refute inaccuracies publicly reported and discussed about a new summer advertising campaign,” reads the note, signed by Visit Baltimore CEO Tom Noonan as well as Ed Hale, chairman of the Baltimore Convention and Tourism Board, and other movers and shakers in the city’s hospitality industry

It goes on to “set the record straight” — “Find Your Happy Place in Baltimore” is an ad campaign, not a tagline or slogan; it is not paid for by taxpayers but rather is funded primarily by hotel taxes; and it actually cost no money to create, since that work was done as part of its monthly retainer with ad agency Carton Donofrio. The $500,000 was actually spent on TV, print and radio ads.

“It is a campaign based on extensive research that shows people, more than ever, are looking to do things that make them happy after a long economic downturn,” Noonan and Hale add in the note. “Visit Baltimore is capitalizing on this national mood and trend with a comprehensive program that promotes those places and things in Baltimore that are certain to make visitors happy.”

Nancy Hinds, Visit Baltimore’s vice president of public affairs, told me that it wasn’t directed at anyone or any media outlet in particular but was part of the organization’s effort to be proactive and not let any misinformation gather momentum in the blogosphere. Competing cities, she added, might spend double what Baltimore’s spending on a similar ad campaign, but “if you don’t advertise you won’t have visitors.”

It was sent out Wednesday, so we’re left to assume that among the “unnecessary distractions” was this item referencing murder and mayhem to generate some sardonic alternatives to the new slogan – er, ad campaign.

Can’t we all just get our Preak on?

Genovation teams with Tata on sustainable car

If electric cars are the wave of the future, Genovation Cars just took another step closer to that future.

The Rockville-based designer and builder of environmentally friendly cars has enlisted Tata Technologies, an affiliate of India’s Tata Motors that helped with the creation of the tiny and cheap Nano car, to design and prototype its G2 model, an electric car with a sustainable frame.

The car will include the research that Genovation used to develop its G1 model, which converted Ford Focus cars into electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. The car would be manufactured with green materials — the company is looking into bamboo, flax seed and resin from soybeans — and recycled steel.

Genovation’s eventual goal is to become one of the top providers of electric vehicles in the United States — and make a profit selling around 1,000 cars a year by departing from the Detroit model.

Photo of the G1 from Greencar.com

Dinner brought to you by Joe Flacco

And we’re talking literally.

Get ready to meet some of the highest-paid waiters you’ll probably ever have.

On Monday, Morton’s The Steakhouse in Baltimore is hosting a celebrity server night featuring Ravens players including quarterback Joe Flacco, center Matt Birk, running back Ray Rice and guard Ben Grubbs.

The event includes silent and live auctions, with proceeds benefiting Birk’s HIKE (Hope. Inspiration. Knowledge. Education.) Foundation, a nonprofit that supports at-risk children with education and life skills.

The Ravens will serve a four-course meal to ticketed guests at the restaurant, and advance reservations are required.

I guess if it’s a four-course meal, there’s not a whole lot of wiggle room for these guys to screw up the order, huh? I’d still be tempted to test them though by asking for things like dressing on the side or asking for one of the side orders to be taken off.

But maybe that’s just me.

Although at $250 per person, we should be able to have a little fun with these guys, right?  I know it’s for a good case and all but that’s a hefty price tag to ask for one night, even if I do get the opportunity to tell Joe Flacco to send my dish back because it’s too salty.