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The American Flag or "Your Ad Here?"

NYSE - New York Stock ExchangeYou know that giant American Flag that has covered the front of the New York Stock Exchange since shortly after the September 11th terrorist attacks?

Well apparently that particular American flag is not so much a memorial as it is a placeholder for corporate promotion opportunities. Consider it a patriotic version of the ubiquitous “Your ad here” billboards.


Hopefully the Chinese infant formula company promoted there on August 18th, 2009 produces a safer product than the melamine-tainted Chinese baby formula the FDA warned us about last year.

American Capitalism at its finest.

(Hat tip, Matt N.)

MINUTEMENT UPDATE: Future finally arrives

Know what sucks? When you’re flipping through a magazine to look at the celebrity pictures and a colorful ad catches your eye—and you’re compelled to read the text to figure out what the ad is selling and how you can buy it.

I know it bums me out.

Thankfully, the great men and women on Madison Avenue have come to the rescue. According to a report in the Financial Times, New York and Los Angeles subscribers of Entertainment Weekly will be spared the need to read print ads from CBS and Pepsi in next month’s issue. Instead, the ads will be displayed as videos on small, ultra-thin screens embedded in the magazine.

Finally, the promise of Back to the Future II has been realized. Now if could finally have those cars that don’t need roads…

God Bless American marketing and innovation!

Chain restaurants in NYC: Saturation point or starting point?

The Center for an Urban Future has a new study out showing the number of chain restaurants and stores in New York City.  Here are some of the highlights for Manhattan.

(Here is the report for the whole city)

Store———– Outlets in Manhattan————–Outlets/Square Mile

Starbucks                            193                                    8.3

Subway                                153                                     6.6

Dunkin’ Donuts                105                                      4.6

McDonalds                         81                                         3.5

Baskin-Robbins                46                                           2

Burger King                       20                                          .87

Predictably, the hipster and neighborhood association crowds are outraged by the spread of affordable, air-conditioned stores like Dunkin’-Donuts and Mc Donald’s. Apparently when such places fill a vacant storefront or displace a sketchy tattoo parlor, it somehow ruins the character of the city.

I don’t buy it.

What the naysayers don’t understand is that chain restaurants help spread the things that make America great. This is both true overseas—where a Mc Donald’s is a familiar place of refuge—and in our own backyards.

Sure Bob’s Sketchy Super Burrito/Pizza Palace might have “character.” But that so called “character” is often little more than a hot, grimy restaurant with bad service. What’s more, the so-called “character” and “uniqueness” of Bob’s Sketchy Super Burrito/Pizza Palace is undermined by the fact that it is indistinguishable from the countless other “independent,” “neighborhood” burrito/pizza palaces across New York.

Chipotle, on the other hand, succeeds not because it is part of some nefarious chain, but because it embraces the things that make America great: Its restaurants are clean and air-conditioned. The food is goodconsistent and affordableRefills are free. And the sales clerks don’t try to enforce credit card minimums.

I think of the 3.5 Mc Donald’s restaurants and 4.6 Dunkin’ Donuts per square mile in Manhattan not as a saturation point, but as a starting point.

In a city where no one drives things need to be close—and right now, the things we want are often not close enough.

While there is a Mc Donald’s and Starbucks convenient to my apartment, Dunkin’ Donuts is nowhere to be found. And when it comes to Pizza, forget it. The only place on my block serves horrible, greasy pizza and tries to enforce a $20 minimum on credit card purchases.

So if you’re looking to open a pizza franchise, consider this an open invitation. Union Square needs you.

And to all the Mc Donald’s and Starbucks* managers in New York: God Bless You and God Bless America!

*Please just try and keep the bathrooms clean

Previous topics mentioned in this post:

#6. Chargebacks and Credit Cards

€1. Pay toilets

€4. Inadequate air conditioning

5 Things about New York that make America Great

Cooler heads previal

Walking down Broadway in 90 degree heat earlier this week, I came to have a deeper appreciation of the American retail tactic of luring customers into shops by blasting air conditioning out of open doors. As it was particularly sticky that day, I was happy when my walk brought me to the boutique-lined blocks of SoHo. It seemed that the high-end clothing shops there competed not on products, styling or price, but on who could blast the coldest air onto the sidewalks.

Sure, flooding the sidewalks with 62 degree chilled air might not be the most efficient thing in the world, but that day—thanks to the valiant efforts of the retailers—the only climate change going on was the transformation of those few blocks of Broadway from a completely miserable climate to a moderately tolerable one.

The pleasure and anticipation with which I walked by each clothing boutique made it all the more startling when I came across one with its doors sealed tight. Surely they weren’t trying to hoard all of their precious cooled air inside for themselves? Such a thing would be un-American.

But as a small, hand-written sign in the window made clear, the store in question was not selfishly keeping its chilled air locked up inside. Rather, they were sparing potential customers from an uncomfortable shopping experience on account of the fact their air conditioner was broken.

You would never see such consideration in the hot, sticky shops of Europe.


God Bless America.

Previous topics mentioned:

€4. Inadequate air conditioning

The American Dream is alive and well. Here is the proof:

Q: How can you possibly make something as American as a Super-sized Big Mac meal with a coke better?

A: By delivering it. … for free.


That’s right. That is a picture of a real life McDonald’s employee delivering a meal, complete with delicious McDonald’s fountain drinks to a grateful customer.

Three words: God Bless America!

What is more American: Big Gulps or Credit Cards?

The US Capital
Big Gulps and using your credit card for everything are two pillars of the American way of life.  But a story in today’s New York Times reports that the companies that brought you the Big Gulp and promulgated no-fee (to the consumer) credit cards are at loggerheads.

At issue: interchange fees.

If you’re a regular reader of Free Refills & Why I Love America, you’ll know that what makes using a credit card in America such a pleasure is that retailers are not allowed to charge customers fees for using them or impose minimum purchase requirements on consumers who pay with them—although many of the merchants in NYC seem to be a bit casual about the latter.

The fact that credit cards are treated like cash liberates consumers from the burden of carrying cash and from the stealth tax of losing money that falls out of your pocket. What’s more, purchases made by credit cards often come with extended warrantees, insurance and customer satisfaction protections that are not available to those paying cash.

From the merchants prospective, the proliferation of credit card wielding consumers means that many more people can purchase things that perhaps they could not otherwise afford, earning the merchant a grateful customer and a handsome profit. For this benefit, the merchant has to pay an “interchange fee” of about 1-3 percent. That fee is divided up between the merchant’s bank, the card issuer’s bank and the good men and women at VISA, American Express and MasterCard who make the whole thing possible.

For cutesy video about how interchange fees work, check out this clip from the electronic payments coalition. They are the lobbying group for credit card issuers, so they should have a good idea how the whole system works.

Recently, many merchants have been scoffing at paying their fair share to make the whole system work. They have been violating their contracts by instituting minimum purchase requirements, charging customers extra fees and lobbying congress to change the rules on their behalf.

That is where 7-Eleven enters the picture. The people that brought us the Super Big Gulp are circulating petitions at some of their stores that urge congress to regulate interchange fees—in effect shifting the burden of those fees on to banks and consumers (in the form of decreased rewards programs).

Normally figuring out who to support in this case would be pretty easy. Using a credit card anywhere, to buy anything is part of what makes America great.

But on the other hand, the good people at 7-Eleven developed the Slurpee and the Super Big Gulp. How can a company that invented the bucket-sized soft drink and paved the way towards Super Size culture be anti American?

Who is more patriotic, the credit card companies or 7-Eleven?

In this instance, I am going to come down on the side of the credit card companies. Sure Super Big Gulps are great, and we will always be indebted to 7-Eleven for their relentless push towards bigger and bigger soft drink servings, but using a credit card for any purchase, even a Big Gulp, is more important than any one company. The free use of credit cards has become a basic American right—and one that needs defending.

When it comes to the Credit Card Companies V. 7-Eleven, the Credit Card Companies win.

God Bless America!

Previous topics mentioned in this post:

An Open Letter to VISA

#6. Chargebacks and Credit Cards

#10. Super Big Gulp

MINUTEMENT UPDATE: Because eight pop choices is not enough

coca cola
Have you ever gone up to a self-serve soda fountain and thought that the six to eight choices typically offered are insufficient?

Well, neither have I.

But one of the great things about America is that deep the the research labs of our big companies there are thousands of scientists finding solutions to problems we didn’t even know we faced.

The Flat Bottom Taco Shell from Old El Paso is a great example. Did I realize my old, curved taco shells were insufficient? No. Is my life now better because of the hard work of the men and women of Old El Paso? Yes.

Yesterday came word that the consumer scientists behind America’s great food companies have done it again.

It seems the good men and women of the Coca-Cola Corporation have solved the problem of not enough pop flavors being offered at soda fountains. Coca-Cola has developed a new “smart” soda fountain that can deliver up to 100 different flavors of pop, water and juice from a single machine.

InformationWeek has the full story with photos.

No longer will the sparse offerings of our soda fountains be reminiscent of Soviet grocery stores. No longer will we have to settle for the limited choices of Coke, Diet Coke, Sprite, Dr. Pepper, Fanta Orange, Dasani ect.

100 flavors here I come!*

*I just hope all 100 flavors use high-fructose corn syrup.

God Bless America! has more info here.

MINUTEMEN UPDATE: American capitalism alive and well

American capitalism has had a hard year of it.

The auto industry is going bankrupt. Retailers are shutting their doors. Our banks are run by the treasury department. Even Circuit City, the company that brought us such useful things as the DIVX video player (you remember that, don’t you?), is liquidating.

It seems like the Great Recession is toppling all the once-great pillars of American Capitalism.

But just when I thought all was lost, I saw a commercial on TV for a new product that renewed my faith in big business and American capitalism: the flat bottom taco from Old El Paso.

What makes this product beautiful is how utterly unnecessary it is.

No one sat around the kitchen thinking that tacos are a big pain to make because they don’t stand up straight. But the men and women at General Mills, the parent company of Old El Paso, realized that even staples that function perfectly well can be improved. More importantly they understood that people will buy the new-and-improved product even if they don’t yet know they need it. You just need to educate them.

So General Mills invented the flat bottom taco. Hopefully they will be rewarded handsomely for discovering and correcting this shortcoming in taco technology.

It is this kind of dedication to incremental improvements in products—coupled with massive advertizing investments to educate people about why they need the latest and greatest—that ensures that in America, tomorrow will always be a little bit better than yesterday.*

After all, a decade ago, who would have thought we needed flat-panel TVs?

*Unless you work for a taco-shell company like Bearitos, which does not have the latest taco-shell technology.

Check out the ad below.


MINUTEMEN UPDATE: European-style credit card fees averted

Early this afternoon the United States Senate overwhelmingly passed a new credit card regulation bill. Initial reports of the legislation seem to indicate that the Durbin amendment to permit merchants European-style credit card fees did not make the cut. 

Instead, the bill seems to mandate “further study of interchange fees.”

ACTION ALERT: Senators aim to introduce European-style credit card fees

cash onlyOne of the great things about America is that you can use a credit card anywhere, for almost any purchase and merchants don’t charge you a fee.

In fact, merchants are contractually prohibited from charging you either a fee to use your card or mandating a minimum purchase amount, though lots of treasonous types try to ignore the latter rule.

That is not to say that VISA, MasterCard and American Express don’t charge fees to process transactions. They typically charge merchants 1 to 3 percent of each transaction. Last year, this equaled nearly $50 billion.

But in the true American fashion, those costs are externalized. The fees charged for credit card transactions are paid by everyone—including cash and debit card users—in the form of higher prices. The are not born by credit card users alone.

This system allows responsible credit card users to rack up frequent flier miles or cash-back rewards that are paid for both by merchants and the guy behind you in line who pays for his gallon of milk in cash.

But a pair of U.S. Senators is trying to change that and let retailers introduce European-style fees for credit card transactions. The Wall Street Journal reports that Sens. Durbin (D-Ill.) and Bond (R-Mo.) are trying to insert an amendment into the broader credit card reform bill that would allow merchants to discriminate based on whether a customer is paying with cash, debit or credit.

Contact your senator and tell them that freedom means paying the same price no matter what you carry in your wallet.

As for cash customers subsidizing the rewards earned by credit card users, well, externalizing costs is the American way. Besides, paying with credit cards offers some great consumer protections.

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