To counter the false enthusiasm of advertising, we looked into our crystal ball at the purchasing trends for 2010 and identified a dirty dozen products and services, some highly hyped, that we believe you would be better off not buying. Here's our list:
1. GPS units
When hand-held global positioning system devices first became available to the hoi polloi, they were greeted as a miracle by the geographically dyslexic. With one in hand, even the most map-disabled person could find their way through the maze of a city to their destination, and, occasionally, the middle of a corn field ( when the digital map was inaccurate).
In the age of the smart phone, though, why schlep around a pocket or purse full of different digital devices (MP3 player, camera, GPS)? An iPhone or Droid or Blackberry can track your location, overlay it on a map, and show you where you are, where you're headed, and how to get there, turn by turn. The same device can also serve up your tunes, your IMs, e-mail, a game of olitaire, take video and make your phone calls.
Perhaps, though, you really want to be guided by the voice of Lady Gaga, Kayne West, John Madden or Joan Rivers (as if). No worries; the GPS apps for smart phones, while not quite up to the level of dedicated GPS devices yet, will catch up quickly. Apple announced recently that over 3 billion apps have been downloaded; that's a lot of financial incentive to create the best services for your smart phone.
2. Country club memberships
When you read the words "country club", what do you envision? An upscale setting full of interesting people and a beautiful golf course? Or perhaps a great place to take clients to nail down a big deal?
if you said "yes" to either one of those options, then you're probably over the age of 50. And that's one of the problems facing country clubs today. When younger people envision a country club they see aging facilities, high membership fees, the scent of elitism, and, worst of all, old people.
Adding to this image problem is the financial squeeze of the past two years. A large number of clubs are either filing for bankruptcy or lowering their initiation fees to the point that the common man, those Rodney-Dangerfield-like people despised by Ted Knight in "Caddyshack", can afford to bring their cutoff-jeans-shorts and wife-beater t-shirts onto the course and into the clubhouse.
A couple of other problems -- the popularity of golf on television is Tiger-driven, and one could speculate that his absence from the links this year might also diminish the number of people who take up the "good walk spoiled". And Tiger has shown us that not every man is content playing the same course week in and week out.
You may see bargain-basement membership offers from local country clubs this year, but check thrice before joining: you could be grabbing the last seat on the Titanic.
3. Major League Soccer (MLS) season tickets
The rest of the world loves the type of football played with one's feet and a black and white-checkered ball, but here in the nation of the pointy-ended ball the sport's popularity hasn't grown to NFL proportions. The success of the latest attempt to start a professional soccer league, the MLS, is questionable, and now a labor dispute threatens to red-card the entire league.
Unlike major league basketball, football, baseball and hockey, MLS players sign with the league, not a particular team. Critics claim that this lack of competition puts players behind the eight-ball in negotiations, resulting in few guaranteed contracts and robbing the players of the ability to move from team to team of their own volition.
While most sports fans know about the huge contract David Beckham received to bring his game to the U.S. from Europe ($6.5 million in 2009), the median player salary is only $88,000, according to the AP. Fifpro, the international soccer pro's union, recently released a statement claiming that MLS owners were prepared to lock out the players when the contract expires on January 31st. MLS president Mark Abbott called discussions of a lockout or player strike premature and counterproductive.
We've seen these standoffs before; remember the lost hockey season of 2004-2005? No reason for you to pony up your money for games that may never be played.
4. Biodiesel vehicles
Proponents of biodiesel-powered vehicles point to the motor's fuel efficiency, 20% to 40% above that of gasoline, its longer life, and its lower carbon dioxide emissions (15% below that of gas-powered vehicles) as a major selling point. But drivers shouldn't buy a vehicle that runs on biodiesel -- fuel blends that 20% of which is derived from fats and plant oils such as soybean oil and algae -- until the government makes some moves first.
The biodiesel movement was initially aided by a federal $1 a gallon tax credit that was enacted in 2004. Unfortunately, Congress allowed the tax credit to lapse, leaving the industry in no-man's land. The tax credit may be renewed later this year, but in the meantime, biodiesel producers will be losing money hand over fist. The cost of producing a gallon of biodiesel from soybean oil averaged $3.01 per gallon in the past two and half years, according to a recent study, while it costs $1.82 to make a gallon of diesel from crude oil.
If you're thinking of buying a vehicle that runs on biodiesel for its green properties or lessened dependence on imported oil, you might want to hold off until the government votes on renewing the tax incentive.
5. Laptop computer
Just a few years ago, laptops freed us to join the literary throng busily pecking away at the coffee house.
Now, however, the field has broadened, and a slew of capable, cheaper devices are starting to topple the laptop. The netbook, for example, offers portability and Internet access -- and costs about half of what a laptop does.
Other users have found smart phones like the iPhone provide many of the services they had used their laptop for, from storing music and photos to web browsing to taking notes, tweeting, IMing, and the like.
Waiting in the wings is a third, potentially huge competitor, the tablet PC. Apple's tablet computer, the iSlate, is to be unveiled very soon. It will bring iPhone-like touch screens, apps, and greater portability to the digital bedouins. Microsoft, among others, is also preparing to unveil a tablet for those living in the PC arm of the universe.
You might be tempted to buy a laptop to use as a base unit, but don't; a desktop will cost less, and the larger screen is worth its weight in gold when slogging through a project.
6. Microsoft Office 2010
I'm still ticked that Microsoft changed Word in its 2007 version, forcing me to relearn the program. The previous version worked just fine, if not better. Now the company is preparing to release Office 2010, giving us the opportunity to buy the software suite yet again (for me, this makes about the sixth time.) This time, however, I think I'll pass.
Office has some serious competitors now. Open Office is an open-sourced package of programs similar to those in Office, and you can't beat the price: free. But even more serious competition comes with the rapid advancement in software that runs online, rather than in your PC. Google is aggressively promoting Google Docs, which allows you to do word processing, spreadsheets and more, online, storing the results on its servers. And the price? Once again, free.
Zoho, too, offers an extensive package of cloud software, free. And in the class of "I'll believe it when I see it," Microsoft itself is preparing to offer online versions of Office: free.
7. Wii Fit
Is this the year you get fit? Or get Nintendo's Wii Fit video game system? The two, unfortunately, are not synonymous.
A study conducted by the American Council on Exercise (ACE) at the University of Wisconsin's La Cross Exercise and Health Program showed "underwhelming results." The programs, including Free Run and Advanced Steps, were less strenuous than anticipated. Free Run and Island Run burned up 165 calories in a half hour, or 5.5 calories a minute. Conventional step aerobics burns over twice that amount.
Another recent study at the University of Massachusetts found that use declined from 22 minutes per day at the start of the test to four minutes a day during the second six-week period. The researcher, associate professor of health and exercise Scott Owens, concluded that "the Wii Fit had little impact on daily fitness."
If you want to have fun, a Wii might be a reasonable purchase. If you want to get fit, however, you'd be better off buying a dog that requires walking or a bicycle to ride to work.
8. Playboy Magazine subscription
In 1972, Hugh Heffner had a virtual monopoly on skin, selling seven million copies of Playboy a month, back when anything more risque than photos of topless busty women was only available in sleazy back rooms. Today, however, such images are available everywhere -- and that's been bad news for the bunny.
Hefner recently sold his mansion in L.A. for $18 million, one sign of the crumbling finances of his empire. The company's attempt to reinvent itself as video brand met with little success, and over the past 10 years its stock has dropped from $31 to today's $3.46. Now Hefner is shopping the company around again after a rumored $300 million sale to Iconix Brand Management fell apart late last year.
Given the grim news, this isn't a good time to buy a subscription, even if just for the articles. All the Botox in the world won't improve the long-term prospects of this fading beauty.
9. Fashions in the color Mimosa
The problem? Establishing standards for colors, so that one printer's yellow matched another's, so that buyers could be assured that a red they bought from one fabric producer would be the same as that of another. The company that solved the problem was Pantone, and today Pantone is the color police.
Each year, Pantone chooses a color of the year, one that it hopes will sweep the fashion and printing industries. 2010's color? Turquoise, which a Pantone executive says is "believed to be a protective talisman, a color of deep compassion and healing, a color of faith and truth...". Obviously, we'll all be running out to buy turquoise clothing this year; who wouldn't want to dress in faith and truth?
By the same token, last year's color, Mimosa, is so....2009. Wearing Mimosa now simply shouts "fashion fail", a tag none of us want, right? Even though last year the same executive said, "Mimosa also speaks of enlightenment, as it is a hue that sparks imagination and innovation."
I can see I'm going to have to rethink the color of my office, an unimaginative, unenlightened split-pea green.
10. The Kindle DX
Amazon's Kindle DX, the e-reader with a 9.7-inch screen that is more layout-friendly for reading newspapers and school texts, is no longer the only kid on the block, and at $489, a questionable investment. Competitors are storming onto the market, some promising more features, cheaper content, and lower price.
The Hearst Corporation just unveiled a large-format e-reader, the Skiff, which uses a flexible sheet of stainless-steel foil as its base
The e-reader race is based on one goal, following the example of Apple's iPod and iTunes; to shackle you to a format that you can only obtain through the company that sells the e-reader. Of course, you would benefit from being able to buy content from competing companies. That's why buying a DX should not be in your 2010 plans. With the number of new models entering this war, prices are bound to tumble. And some of those models will use more open formats that allow you to shop for content wherever you choose.
Pity the poor pig farmer in the aftermath of the 'swine' flu. As news of the flu hit the front pages of America's papers last year, public demand for pork dropped precipitously. Despite a concerted effort to re-brand the disease as H1N1, those who erroneously believed that they could catch the flu by eating pork refused to buy the bacon.
Farmers responded as you might expect, by dramatically reducing the herds in their piggeries. These farmers were already suffering from the spike in the price of corn in the last quarter of 2007 and first quarter of 2008.
If the love affair between Americans and their ham, bacon and pulled pork returns to normal levels and the low exchange rate of the American dollar results in more pork exports, then the reduced supply of porcine deliciousness could drive prices up this year.
In January 1980, gold prices peaked at $850 an ounce, equivalent to $2,231.56 today. (Yes, gold is nowhere near that inflation-adjusted all-time high today.) What is more important, though, is what happened right after this peak. By June 21, 1982, it had fallen to $296.
These days, gold is all the rage again. If you've jumped on the gold bandwagon, you best get off before it costs you a fortune. Many prognosticators are warning that we're in a gold bubble. Indeed, when brokers are making enough money on the sale of gold to pay for network television ads, take that as a warning that those who know the market better than you do are expecting a bonanza. And you're the supplier.
Oh -- you're planning to time the market, getting out at the top? Good luck with that - such hubris has built many a brokerage house. The shrewd investor should sit out this bubble in 2010, and not fall victim to the lure of shiny baubles.