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As the stumbling retailer tries to rebuild ties to shoppers, it has a massive employee morale problem to deal with as well.

Under ousted chief executive Ron Johnson, J.C. Penney (JCP -1.47%) had a massive housecleaning, sweeping away thousands of  jobs as it eliminated popular clothing lines like St. John’s Bay.

 

Now, returning CEO Myron Ullman has a knotty problem on his hands: how to revive those brands with a company suffering from deep morale problems and an employee base that has shrunk by 23%, reports The Wall Street Journal.

 

When Johnson completed his first full fiscal year on the job, Penney employed only 116,000 people, down from its recent historic level of 150,000, according to the report.

 

While the ex-CEO argued that the job cuts were needed to boost Penney’s financial performance, the opposite resulted: Loyal customers fled, with many angered at his decision to dump St. John’s Bay. Sales plunged 25% last year.

 

St. John’s Bay may have been a linchpin leading to Johnson’s failure. MSN moneyNOW readers often cited the disappearance of the casual-wear clothing line as the reason they abandoned Penney stores.

 

“If JC Penney brings back the brands that they ditched, St. John’s Bay women’s jeans for instance, I will think about shopping there again……but not until then,” one reader wrote on Thursday.

 

And it turns out that Penney is planning on bringing back the clothing line, which had brought in annual sales of a billion dollars, The Journal notes.

 

Why would Johnson single-handedly get rid of a brand that racked up such huge sales? The former Apple executive wanted to “de-frump” the stores and instead brought in edgier designers such as Cynthia Rowley. The problem, though, was that Penney customers had been happy with those comfortable clothing lines. Feeling alienated, many of them swore off shopping at the retailer.

 

Johnson misunderstood the store’s customer base, which tends to be older than 55. One-third of its customers earn less than $35,000 a year, according to BloombergBusinesswee​k. Getting rid of coupons also alienated his price-conscious customers.

 

Penney plans to return coupon advertising to newspapers, activist investor William Ackman said on Thursday, according to Bloomberg. The company needs to “calm the vendors,” he added.

 

But what to do about those morale problems? According to The Journal, the layoffs weren’t pretty. Because Penney didn’t have enough staff to cut people in face-to-face meetings, groups of employees were ushered into Penney’s auditorium to hear the news. Sometimes more than 100 people were fired at once, the story notes.

 

With Ullman’s plan to bring back St. John’s Bay, he might be taking one step toward dealing with his alienated customer base. And getting rid of Johnson was likely a big boost to internal morale. According to the New York Post, clapping and laughing erupted last Monday at an employee meeting when word of his ouster was announced.

 

Compliments of: Martha Small | Austin Portfolio Real Estate | 512.587.0308

Original Article by: Aimee Picchi

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The IRS will grant an automatic extension to anyone who asks. But you still have to estimate what you owe and send the money.

For taxpayers who can’t manage the April 15 deadline, the Internal Revenue Service offers an automatic six-month filing extension. This year the due date is Oct. 15, and taxpayers qualify by filing Form 4868.

 

Getting an extension is preferable to filing a return with mistakes, says Melissa Labant, a tax specialist with the American Institute of CPAs. “If you have already filed, then you will need to amend the return, which is often more trouble,” she says.

 

Remember that an extension to file isn’t an extension to pay. Uncle Sam wants 100% of the total tax by the April due date, or interest and perhaps a late-payment penalty will be due.

 

Here are common reasons to seek an extension.

 

Incomplete records, especially for investments or a closely held business. A sore point with many tax preparers is that brokers sometimes issue multiple Form 1099s reporting investment tax information.

Lack of a letter confirming a charitable contribution. The law is clear: Taxpayers must have proper notification from a charity before deducting a donation. “Get that letter before you file,” Labant says.

 

Roth IRA reversal. Taxpayers who converted all or part of a regular IRA to a Roth account have until the October due date the following year to undo the conversion, which is taxable. That might be a good idea if assets in the Roth account have fallen in value since the conversion.

 

Roth IRA owners who file in April can amend their returns before Oct. 15 to undo last year’s conversion, but filing for an extension is often the easier route.

 

You are traveling, or it is your busy season. Harried tax preparers often file extensions for their own returns.

 

Compliments of: Martha Small | Austin Portfolio Real Estate | 512.587.0308

Original Article by: MSN Money partner

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These homes still watch programs but mostly on laptops, tablets and phones.

There are 5 million “zero-TV” households in the U.S., more than double from 2 million in 2007. It’s a small but growing trend that has the media establishment plenty worried.

These people, who make up fewer than 5% of U.S. households, haven’t stopped watching television shows. They just do it on their own terms over laptops, tablets and cellphones.

As Nielsen notes, about 75% of these homes still have TVs, but people use them mostly to play video games and watch DVDs.

This creates a huge problem for the industry, one that will likely be a key topic at this week’s National Association of Broadcasters’ annual trade show. Content creators and broadcast networks make money from these viewers through arrangements with streaming sites such as Netflix (NFLX) and Hulu and through advertising on their websites and apps, according to The Associated Press. Television stations, however, get shut out.

“Unless broadcasters can adapt to modern platforms, their revenue from zero-TV viewers will be zero,” the AP says.

The New York Times on Monday noted the trend of people sharing passwords for video-streaming sites such as HBO Go, which is owned by Time Warner (TWX +0.74%), making it even easier for cable users to cut the cord.

Though more than 130 TV stations in the U.S. broadcast live signals to mobile devices, most users don’t have the tools to receive them. The dongles that catch those signals are just starting to be sold, according to the AP.

A handful of video-streaming sites have become hot properties. Hulu, for example, has reportedly received a $500 million bid from former News Corp. (NWS +2.20%) president Peter Chernin. The site is jointly controlled by News Corp. and Walt Disney (DIS +1.86%).

Luckily for broadcasters, most people are still transfixed by the boob tube. According to Nielsen, Americans spend an average of nearly 41 hours a week, or about 5.5 hours a day, watching content across all screens. People spend more than 34 of those hours in front of a TV.

Even so, given the technological changes in the works, the television industry 10 years from now may not look much like it does today.

 

Compliments of: Martha Small | Austin Portfolio Real Estate | 512.587.0308

Original Article by: Jonathan Berr

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Lenders look at other factors, not your credit score alone, before approving a condo loan.

Some lenders can make condo buyers with pristine credit feel like rejects. Blame it on the building.

Before making a loan to a would-be buyer, lenders comb through the building’s financial statements to see if too many condos remain unsold, or if units are mostly rentals instead of owner-occupied. Lenders also look to see if the building’s cash reserves, which help cover maintenance costs, are too low.

These factors — which have nothing to do with a potential buyer’s finances — can put a chokehold on a loan.

A lot of condo buildings don’t make the grade. At national lender EverBank, for instance, roughly 30% of condo mortgage applicants encounter a roadblock due to the building’s finances. “A perfect borrower can’t fix a bad project,” says Tom Wind, executive vice president of residential and consumer lending at EverBank.

Shaky condos have been popping up more frequently over the past two to three years, even in luxury buildings, says Zeke Morris, president of the Chicago Association of Realtors. Real-estate agents say they’re also prevalent in other markets, including Houston and Miami.

In general, lenders say they view condos as riskier purchases than other homes. Much of that stems from condo-association fees. If existing owners are behind on those payments or many units remain unsold, monthly fees are likely to rise to help cover costs.

At some point, lenders argue, those expenses could rise to a level where an owner can no longer afford to pay the fees and walks away from the property, leaving the lender with the outstanding mortgage. That’s why, currently, it is almost impossible to get a mortgage — regardless of your wealth — if more than 15% of condos in a building are behind on dues, says Jeff Gennarelli, president of Bridgeview Bank Mortgage Co., based in Lombard, Ill.

But luxury buyers have alternatives besides paying all cash for the condo. One is private mortgages, loans that lenders hold on their books rather than sell to the government. They tend to be larger than traditional loans, require larger down payments and are often offered only as adjustable-rate mortgages. Rates are also generally higher than traditional mortgages.

Private loans are sometimes the only source of financing for condos sold in luxury hotels and in buildings where more than 20% or 25% of the units consist of commercial space, like restaurants and shopping malls. They’re also common for a condo in a new building where a certain percentage of the units are still owned by the developer.

To find such a loan, borrowers should consider a community bank or other local lending institution where they have a lot of assets or where they have been banking for years, though an existing relationship isn’t always required. Or they can ask mortgage brokers who may know a lender willing to fund such a loan.

The opportunity for profit is partly why these lenders take on the risk when others won’t. Whatever leniency they offer on a building’s finances they often make up for by imposing strict lending requirements, including high credit scores, says Eddie Hoskins, president of First Florida Financial Group, a Fort Myers, Fla.-based mortgage broker that arranges such loans.

Some points to consider when applying for a condo loan:

Get an early start: Buyers should ask lenders for the list of criteria the building will need to meet; then real-estate agents can provide those answers when potential buyers shop for properties.

The type of building: Some condo buildings have a greater risk of not being approved for financing. Jonathan Cherry, senior mortgage banker at Wyndham Capital Mortgage based in Charlotte, N.C., says buyers who want to avoid financing complications might want to stick to mid- to larger-size buildings that are mostly owner-occupied.

Large down payments: With a private mortgage, borrowers often need to make at least a 20% to 30% down payment if it’s a primary residence. If it’s a second home, they could need to put down at least 40%. For investment purposes, cash is among the few options, since a mortgage may be impossible to get.

Rising costs: With adjustable-rate mortgages, rates could be low now but rise in a few years, thereby increasing the monthly mortgage payment. And borrowers could still end up with rising condo dues if the other owners in the building hit hard times.

 

Compliments of: Martha Small | Austin Portfolio Real Estate | 512.587.0308

Original Article by: AnnaMaria Andriotis of The Wall Street Journal

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When we were building our new construction home, the driveway almost seemed like an afterthought. With everything else so close to being finished, we walked around with a can of orange spray paint imagining the ideal path from the street to our garage doors.

So, if not in our experience, then generally speaking, the driveway occupies an important place in overall home and property design. When planning your driveway, there are several things to consider:

Budget
Sometimes money plays a big role in decision-making on materials. As you are thinking about budget, be sure to factor in the varying long-term costs associated with different types of driveways. While a paver driveway carries relatively high upfront costs, maintaining one isn’t expensive. Gravel, on the other hand, is perhaps the least expensive to install but requires the sort of regular maintenance that doesn’t come cheap. Before deciding on a material, make sure you understand what the driveway’s total cost will be over its anticipated lifetime.

Curb appeal
As viewed from the street, your driveway can make a big impression on the look of your house. And certain materials complement certain architectural styles more than others. A gravel driveway would make a nice visual accompaniment to a farmhouse cottage, whereas a herringbone-pattern brick driveway would better suit a colonial-style residence. In short, think about what your choice of driveway will add to, or take away from, curb appeal.

Climate
Some driveway materials may not be appropriate for the climate where you live. For instance, asphalt endures freeze-thaw cycles better than concrete. And heavy rainfalls can negatively affect driveway surfaces that are more prone to erosion, such as gravel and pea stone. Snow, humidity, rainfall and temperature changes are all factors that ought to influence your final decision. Do your homework.

Maintenance
Each material has its own maintenance requirements. For instance, asphalt requires resealing every three to five years. If you live in a place where plowing snow is necessary, a gravel drive will require replacement of moved material each spring. Is the maintenance required of a given material such that you can do it yourself, or will you need to contract someone to handle the work? A smart driveway design will take these questions into account.

Durability
What kind of traffic will your driveway be getting? Will there be lots of heavy trucks on it, or just passenger cars? Some materials are durable, others more finicky. And what’s the grade like? Gravel and pea-stone drives with a pitch are prone to erosion. Also, how long will the driveway be expected to last — 20 years? 40 years? And what kind of maintenance is required to maximize lifespan?

Whatever material you decide to use for your driveway, make sure you take time to lay it out right. If you’ll need space for guests to park, make sure to allow for that.

Once the rough grading is done, take a test drive into the garage from the street (and back the other way) to make sure it tracks comfortably for your biggest vehicle. You don’t want to swipe off your side-view mirror!

 

Compliments of: Martha Small | Austin Portfolio Real Estate | 512.468.5753

Original Article By: Jennifer Noonan of BobVila.com

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You can save 75% — or even more — when you buy these gently used items.

If you’re an avid thrift shopper like me, you know that every secondhand store has its own unique personality. Some stores are great for furniture, others for clothing; some seem to have the market cornered on books, and a few just seem to have older and more unique items than all the rest.Regardless of the personality of your favorite store, there are five standard items that you should always be on the lookout for in every thrift store. Here’s my not-so-scientific list of the top five items that offer the highest savings when compared with retail.

 

1. Shoes

If you can get over the mental roadblock of buying used shoes, it’ll do wonders for your budget. With decent-quality leather shoes ranging anywhere from $65 to $85 retail, scoring a gently used pair for $6 means you’re saving at least 90%. Focus on condition and pay special attention to soles and heels; avoid wear patterns that might affect your stride. Give leather some TLC with mink oil or shoe polish.

 

2. Belts

When did a buckled strip of leather with some holes at one end become worth $32? I’m pretty picky and my wardrobe reflects it, but I haven’t paid more than $4 for a belt in years. Sure, sometimes you walk away empty-handed. But if you’re willing to look and wait for just the right item, you can find great deals on all kinds of leather accessories like belts, wallets, and purses too.

 

3. Jeans

When I was a teenager, I saved for three months to buy a new pair of Guess jeans. I still remember the price back then ($40). Even in all their acid-washed glory, that seemed like an outrageous sum. Today, that’s a bargain price for an off-brand. Thrift stores are great places to take advantage of the growth spurts and fickle tastes of kids and pick up good-quality jeans for about $7. Deals on adult denim are easy to find too. It just takes a little patience, a few trips to the dressing room, and maybe a quick alteration.

4. Furniture

After you’ve been thrifting for a few years, strolling through most retail settings is like visiting a foreign land: You can appreciate the beauty, but you don’t understand what’s being said. Nowhere is this feeling more pronounced than in furniture stores. Spending $219 for a nightstand or $389 for an accent chair? What language are they speaking?

 

Last month I made a quick stop at a local charity’s thrift center and found a club chair and matching ottoman for $80. It was so new it still smelled like the furniture store that had donated it. All it needed was one small repair to the roping detail along the top edge of the ottoman. It took all of 10 minutes to make it look showroom perfect.

 

Check your local thrift store for lamps, nightstands, coffee tables, and bed frames. They can usually be found in perfect or near-perfect condition. Items in rougher shape can become weekend projects and get a second life with a bit of sanding and varnish or paint. Often the sheer quality of older items makes them worthy candidates for a salvage project. Look for quality markers like solid wood construction and dovetail joints.

 

5. Books

Even if you have an e-reader, sometimes it’s nice to hold a book in your hands. And thrift stores are treasure-troves of good used books. Retail prices for paperbacks range from $12.99 to $14; at most thrift shops, they’re 89 cents to $2.99. That’s a minimum savings of about 75%. Thrift stores in college towns and larger cities seem to have the quickest turnover in books and the best selection. Grab some coffee and stroll through their stacks.

 

Successful thrifting is all about being persistent, knowing what you need today and might need tomorrow, and seizing a good a deal when you find it. If you know the right categories to mine, thrift shopping can be a way to save some serious cash by avoiding retail prices on as much as you can whenever you can.

 

Do you focus on certain categories when you thrift shop? What’s the best deal you’ve ever scored secondhand?

 

Compliments of: Martha Small | Austin Portfolio Real Estate | 512.587.0308

Original Article by: Karen Datko

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Compliments of: Martha Small | Austin Portfolio Real Estate | 512.587.0308

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