Work & Money briefs

Keeping Track: auto resale values

Those shopping for a new car might check out a new report on residual values by Automotive Lease Guide (www.alg.com).

For the first time, the industry's main authority on resale values has ranked new vehicles based on what it believes they will sell for at the end of a three-year lease.

The car with the highest residual: BMW's Mini Cooper, which is predicted to retain 61 percent of its value. That's far above the 42 percent industry average for nonluxury autos.

Domestic brands fared poorly against foreign counterparts, with Chevrolet and Ford ranking below average. The report is based on studies of segment competition, historical values, and industry trends.

Will back-to-school sales save retailers?

Consumer skittishness dampened July sales for many retailers, but several merchants raised their profit outlook Thursday as they didn't have to resort to heavy discounting to move summer merchandise.

Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, reported sales at stores that have been open for at least a year were up 4.5 percent in July, reflecting a consumer turn toward discounters. While the figure was below Wall Street's expectations, analysts consider it to be an indication that the retailer remains relatively healthy.

Many department stores and mall-based apparel stores, however, again announced sales declines.

July is typically slow as stores clear out summer merchandise at a discount to get ready for back-to-school. Companies such as Wal-Mart, Talbots Corp., Gap, and AnnTaylor Stores Corp. all increased their earnings outlook on Thursday.

Will consumers cooperate? "I think we are seeing some signs of hesitance on the part of the consumers," said Scott Hoyt, director of consumer economics at Economy.com in West Chester, Pa. "[But] overall consumer spending is still healthy.

"There is not a lot of reason for the consumer to go on major retrenchment mode," he added, "as long as they have jobs and income."

Dog-friendly firm offers 'pet insurance'

The majority of employers offer some form of health benefits to employees and their families. How many provide coverage for the family dog?

Answer: At least one.

The Byrnes & Merz advertising agency outside Philadelphia recently provided pet health insurance for the dogs of three staff members. According to agency partner John Byrnes, his business will pay about $40 to $50 a month for each dog to be insured by Veterinary Pet Insurance Co. in Brea, Calif.

Mr. Byrnes says having employees bring dogs to work boosts morale. But dogs are hardly role models for a strong work ethic: "They kind of play for a bit, then go under a desk and sleep."

Report: Right kind of pressure aids work

Ever heard a creative co-worker make this claim: "I do my best work under pressure"?

That may be true. But it depends on the kind of pressure that's being applied, according to a study published in the August issue of Harvard Business Review.

Using deadline pressure as a time-management technique generally crimps creativity, says the report. While more may get done, leaving the worker feeling more productive, the end product usually suffers (proving another well-worn adage: Haste makes waste).

Not that pressure can't be constructive.

A challenging work environment that "conveys a sense of meaningful urgency about the task at hand" tends to make people feel they are "on a mission," and often yields a higher level of creativity than one in which workers feel as though they are "on a treadmill," says the report.

Too little pressure can spell trouble for a firm's creative output. Long deadline horizons can leave workers feeling they're "on an expedition," leaving them to explore general ideas rather than working to identify and solve specific problems.

And a near absence of pressure? The report calls any creative thinking "unlikely" when people feel they are "on autopilot."

'Bundling' phone, cell, and wireless bills

After years of paying separately for telephone, wireless, and Internet service, consumers are finally getting the chance to replace those multiple accounts with a single bill.

Verizon Communications announced last week that customers in New York and Massachusetts can now buy a package of local calling, long-distance, cellular, and high-speed Web access for about 30 percent less than the company charges for those services separately.

"We've been conditioned against our will to buy separate services from separate companies and pay for them all with separate checks," said Jeff Kagan, an independent industry analyst.

While many phone and cable TV companies are already offering various combinations of calling plans and Internet access, a full mix of services has been elusive due to regulatory, technological, and financial obstacles.

Verizon's new package also demonstrates how an industry move toward "bundling" may finally blur the distinction between local and long-distance calling.

The plan includes unlimited local and regional calls around the clock, as well as unlimited long-distance and wireless calling at night and on weekends.

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