Business

Faw, Larissa            Larissa Faw

CRUISE line Royal Caribbean is stopping last-minute deals. Its new “price integrity policy” refuses to set lower prices for trips that might be 10, 20 or 30 days out.
According to the company, these last-minute discounts have been frustrating travelers who have paid higher prices and, ultimately, damaging its brand.
“We believe that such a policy has to be clear and explicit,” says Royal’s Richard Fain. “Only by setting firm measurable and [explicit] terms can we create the kind of credibility that’s so important to the program success.
“Vague efforts don’t provide the kind of consistency that is so important to our guests and our travel partners.”
Exam teachers
Schools test provider Pearson recently lost its biggest contract, in Texas, which still largely uses paper-based rather than digital tests.
Trying to look on the bright side, Pearson says losing the Texas business frees it up to develop the next generation of better, smarter digitally led assessments.
In the past six months, more than 24 million assessments have been taken online on its TestNav platform, up by 170 per cent from the same period last year.
State and assessment test services account for around 7 per cent of Pearson’s total annual sales and nationally it has 30 per cent of the market, only slightly less than before the USA started its education policy shift from No Child Left Behind to Common Core back in 2012.
Spent oil
Major oil-industry player Schlumberger says its North American 2015 spend will now largely be down by more than 35 per cent, driven by both pricing and activity on land.
Company executives say they do believe that the North American rig count has reached bottom but that the industry will only see a slow increase in drilling and completion activity in the second half of the year.
They say that will not make any material dent in the industry’s massive overcapacity, which means little to no increase in pricing levels and, hence, the market remaining challenging for the foreseeable future.
Off the lot
Car seller Group 1 Automotive’s average used-vehicle selling price increased by $99 to $21,702 during the second quarter, when the company sold more than 31,000 second-hand units.
During the quarter, US used-vehicle inventories stood at roughly 13,800 units, which equates to a 32-day supply. During the second quarter of 2014, the average was 36 days.
On time
According to Alaska Airlines, 88.2 per cent of its flights arrived on time and it cancelled only 0.5 per cent of its flights during the second quarter.
The airline recently launched new services from Seattle to Milwaukee and Oklahoma City and from Portland to St Louis and is to provide new services this fall to JFK, Raleigh, Charleston, Nashville and Costa Rica.
Digging for oil
Fuels major ConocoPhillips’ second-quarter gas and oil production averaged the equivalent of 556,000 barrels of oil per day in the lower 48 states. That’s a 3 per cent increase from the same period last year, including a 9 per cent increase in crude oil production.
The company is now running 13 rigs, with six in the Eagle Ford shale field, four in the Bakken and three in the Permian. That’s down from 32 rigs at the end of 2014 but the company believes it to be the right pace of activity in the current environment.
Executives say they will reassess the activity level later in the year, taking into consideration market conditions, pilot test information and the oil-price outlook.
Blunt talk
American companies typically like to avoid controversy or blunt talk, but European companies are a lot more frank when discussing their finances. Air France-KLM, for instance, says its Brazil market is definitely not recovering and the airline sees no sign of improvement.
Travel between Japan and Europe is also disastrous but the good news is that the impact of Africa’s ebola epidemic is fading and in June it was difficult to find any track of travel disruptions linked to the outbreak.
Going wild
Thirty-seven or 38 per cent of outfitter Cabela’s sales are in general outdoor categories, such as camping, fishing, power sports and home and gifts. Power sports aren’t selling as strongly.
Guns and ammo continue to do well, particularly because gun sales typically skyrocket during election season. “And, if it does, it’s a good thing for our business,” says Cabela’s Thomas Millner.
Tourist travels
Executives at Pebblebrook Hotels say the cities where it receives most visitors are Seattle, Philadelphia, Washington DC, Boston, Portland and San Diego.
The weaker performing markets for its hotels include west Los Angeles, Miami, San Francisco and New York City.
Shopping centers
Mall developer Simon Property Group says it is out of the big-deal business. No more mega-malls.
That said, four retailer categories are continually opening up in malls – international retailers such as H&M, online retailers such as Blue Nile and Bauble Bar that are looking for an offline presence, new bricks-and-mortar retailers such as Mont Blanc, Frye Boots, Jo Malone’s and Suitsupply and existing retailers looking to grow through brand extension.
In the fourth category, Dick’s Sporting Goods has just announced that it has a women’s specialty concept, Chelsea Collective, coming this fall, while L Brands is rolling out White Barn Candle.                             Housing tiers                                                                                                                                               Homes builder DR Horton says houses built under its Express brand, which is targeted at the true entry-level buyer, are being offered in 44 markets and 14 states, with the significant majority of its sales and closings to date coming from Texas, Florida and the Carolinas. During the most recent quarter, Express accounted for 19 per cent of Horton homes sold, 16 per cent of closings and 10 per cent of the company’s home sales revenue. The average closing price for an Express Home was $188,000.

Rain delay no problem for CC
TEXAS’ record spring rainfall negatively affected golf income at Dallas-based ClubCorp and dampened its à la carte food-and-beverage business, even though it recorded record revenues for the second quarter.
“I saw a statistic the other day that the rainfall in Dallas-Fort Worth was a 115-year high so, when people hear it rained in Texas in April and May, they just don’t understand that, in May, it rained 22 days out of the month,” says the company’s CEO, Eric Affeldt.
“With that said, and this again comes back to why we love the private club and membership business model, if you’re in the daily fee golf business in Texas right now, your year is effectively over. You will not make up enough rounds and enough revenues to make your budget for the balance of the year.”

Larissa Faw covers business trends for Forbes, The Motley Fool and other financial websites. She can be contacted at larissafaw@gmail.com.

Rzad, Jordan              Jordan Rzad

The “rent-to-own” industry has become a multi-billion-dollar sector in the American economy. One of the most popular rent-to-own purchases is furniture because of its typically high prices and the fact that it is a general necessity for homeowners.
Furniture also does not become outdated nearly as fast as electronics, so it makes more sense to be paying for furniture over a long period of time than it does for electronics. In general, rent-to-own can be a good option for consumers who cannot comfortably afford to pay the full price of an item in one payment.
There are several pros of rent-to-own furniture.
• It is not difficult to find a place that offers rent-to-own purchasing options. There are approximately 8,600 US rent-to-own stores in operation, serving 4.1 million customers a year.
• Flexible payment plans allow consumers to change the amount they pay and they can execute an early-purchase option at any time to obtain ownership of the product.
• The customer is never obligated to make the next payment and can return the product at any time for any reason, although he or she will not get their money back.
• If a customer chooses a fewer number of payments, the rent-to-own price is significantly lower and can be competitive with retail prices.
• Unlike the terms attached to a loan, a rent-to-own buyer’s credit will not be damaged in any way if they are unable to make a payment.
• Some stores offer
free replacement, repair and delivery.
There are also some cons to the agreement.
• If the customer chooses a higher number of payments, the total cost will be more than retail, sometimes double or triple the item’s original price.
• Although a rent-to-own contract is not a loan and does not involve payment of interest rates, when factored in, the equivalent interest rate can be 60 to 100 per cent or higher.
• There have been complaints that stores do not adequately explain their contracts, deliver used or damaged goods and use illegal collection practices, such as harassing phone calls.
• Store employees often convince customers to rent products they don’t need, thereby burdening customers with many payments they cannot manage.
• Some plans have hidden fees ¬– if the product is returned or damaged, for example.
When considering a rent-to-own purchase, it is very important to follow these tips to ensure that this flexible payment option does not become a costly scam:
• Read all terms and conditions of the contract carefully before signing. Determine what fees are associated with the transaction, who is responsible for repairs or maintenance and what happens after a late or missed payment.
• Make sure you know, in writing and orally, the total dollar amount and number of rental payments you will have made by the time ownership becomes an option and the payment plan has ended.
• Before choosing a rent-to-own company, visit www.bbbhouston.org to see what other consumers’ experience has been like, the volume of complaints against the company and how it resolved them.
• Only rent the item that you absolutely need so you do not find yourself trapped in numerous payment contracts at a time.
• Visit the Association Of Progressive Rental Organizations’ website, rtohq.org, for links to state laws governing rent-to-own provisions.

Jordan Rzad is the senior director responsible for internet marketing at Houston Better Business Bureau.

Rzad, Jordan              Jordan Rzad

CHOOSING a doctor or other health-care practitioner can be a real pain! There are many things to consider – the doctor’s training, experience and credentials; references, recommendations or ratings from other patients, bedside manner, disciplinary or malpractice actions and whether the practice takes your health insurance. Medical expenses can add up quickly and are the leading cause of bankruptcy in America today.
Clearpoint Credit Counseling Solutions has several ways you can use to save money when visiting your doctor.
Compare prescription-drug costs. Medication is one of the biggest budget-busting medical expenses. Even with good insurance, you’re likely to be left with something to pay.
Some apps make it easy to compare costs by telling you the cheapest price and place to purchase a drug in your area. Two of the best and most popular are GoodRx and Lowest Med.
If you aren’t tech savvy, both will mail a discount card you can show your doctor or pharmacist to score lower prices.
Research your insurance. It’s incredibly important to understand the intricacies of your coverage.
What are your co-pays? What’s your deductible and where do you stand in terms of meeting it?
Will the doctor you see routinely be in-network so you don’t have to overpay? What will a visit to an urgent-care facility cost as an alternative to an emergency-room, or ER, visit?
Ask your insurance company or your employer’s human-resources department questions like these, especially if you are having a hard time putting together all the details.
Leave credit cards at home. Putting medical bills on credit cards is not a good idea – there are too many better options available. They include payment plans that typically last up to 18 months and don’t involve interest. Ask your health-care provider about such arrangements.
Compare local costs. When choosing a new provider or specialist, consider the option that minimizes your expenses after insurance. This step is particularly important for non-emergencies like routine services and elective operations, where the cost can vary significantly.
An excellent resource for this type of comparison is Healthcare Bluebook, which is online at healthcarebluebook.com. It shows the “fair price” for a service based on zip code. Call the listed providers to ask about their specific prices.
Start saving now. You can lower your medical expenses! All it takes is some research and asking the right questions, so put these tips to work and start saving today!

Jordan Rzad is the senior director responsible for internet marketing at Houston Better Business Bureau.

By Travis Gumphrey

AFTER SPENDING some time working at Texas First Bank with his father Charles Doyle, Patrick left for law school.
After graduation in 1992, he became a partner at Bettison, Doyle, Apffel and Guarino, which was under a different name at the time.
In 1995, Doyle started South Land Title and modeled much of his new business after the success he had seen his father achieve with TFB.
“Pat wanted the company to be community based and independent,” South Land vice president of administration Carolyn Sunseri said.
South Land Title is a third-party to real estate contracts and act as a facilitator for closing documents and property background checks.

Carolyn Sunseriwebready Carolyn Sunseri

In addition, it also provides title insurance to protect purchasers from unexpected things that may show up later, like property defects or unpaid property taxes.
The company started as a fee attorney and became its own agency in 2010. Now, they have other fee attorneys at their disposal.
Not only that, the company has the ability to use more than one underwriter, unlike other title companies that are required to use their own underwriter.
South Land is currently licensed to do business with Alamo, Fidelity National, First American, Old Republic, Title Resources Guaranty, and WFG National. So if an issue with a title comes up, South Land has the ability to consult numerous other underwriters.
The dedication to the communities they serve is evident in the extra steps they take to make the processes easier for their clients.

South Land logo -no box

Having several underwriters makes things easier but so does having their own Title Plant where staff examines files and process them and their own Policy Department where completed title policies are processed immediately following closing.
None of this work is outsourced by South Land.
“We are growing as an independent agency,” Sunseri said.  “That’s the difference between us and the bigger, mainstream companies.”
And growing they are.
What started as one location in 1995 was already four locations when Sunseri started as a marketing representative in 2000.
Now, there are 18 South Land offices. Additionally, in 2011 the company purchased Brazos County Abstract, the oldest title company in Brazos County. And in 2014, South Land bought Security Title in Abilene and its four offices. That brings the total of South Land owned title offices to 25, spreading the community-based services further into Texas.
But spreading beyond Galveston County hasn’t slowed their reach at home. This past week, South Land opened two new offices in Galveston County with ribbon cutting ceremonies at the new Texas City and Santa Fe locations. The team at South Land will also be opening a Galleria location within the next few weeks.
“Pat wanted to put locations where our customers were,” Sunseri said.
This has allowed South Land to remain community based and independent, just as Doyle intended.