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Kathy B. Hayes

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American Households Driving Economic Growth

June 25, 2013 12:20 am

Buoyed by rising home prices, American households will drive U.S. economic growth forward according to a report released recently by TD Economics, an affiliate of TD Bank.

"The outlook for the economy is characterized by the increasing resiliency and confidence of the private sector up against ongoing fiscal restraint," says TD Chief Economist Craig Alexander.

"In the first quarter, the headwind on the economy was tax hikes. In the second and third quarters, it will be spending cuts from sequestration. As these drags lift, a sturdier foundation for economic growth will be revealed."

TD Economics forecasts the economy will grow 1.9% in 2013. Economic activity should accelerate thereafter, with 2014 chalking up growth of 2.8%.

American households gaining confidence despite fiscal drag

The resiliency of the American consumer was on full display in the first quarter of this year. Despite a hefty increase in taxes that cut nearly 4 percentage points from income growth, consumer spending rose by an impressive 3.4 percent.

"The strength in consumer spending is evidence that the negative impact of deleveraging is waning and improved balance sheets are providing an offset to fiscal drag," says Alexander.

Fiscal cutbacks will continue over the next several quarters. Automatic spending cuts went into effect in March and will lead to the furlough (unpaid days off) of millions of federal employees over the next several months. This is likely to weigh on economic growth. However, the underlying recovery in the private sector will continue.

Housing rebound continuing but lots of room to grow

The improvement in household net worth has much to do with the turnaround in the housing market. Home prices have turned positive across the vast majority of the country.

"The housing market has done much of the hard work of clearing the overhang of unsold homes. It is now beginning to pay off in terms of rebounding prices," notes Alexander.

In many parts of the country, the challenge now facing the housing market is too little supply. "The next phase of the recovery will be a stronger rebound in construction," says Alexander.

Housing starts are still well below the level required to keep pace with household growth and depreciation. From their current pace of just under a million units, housing starts are likely to rise to 1.3 million units by the end of next year. The rebounding housing market will go a long way to supporting economic growth and offsetting the drag from fiscal policy.

The Federal Reserve will begin to slow asset purchases later this year

With increased confidence in the pace of economic growth, attention in financial markets has turned to when the Federal Reserve will begin to slow their support for the recovery.

The Federal Reserve has committed to continue its asset purchase program until the outlook for the labor market has improved substantially. "This sets a pretty high bar. While we are getting closer, with the ongoing drag from fiscal policy, we're not quite there yet," notes Alexander.

"We anticipate that by September, the worst of sequestration will have passed and the Fed will have sufficient positive economic news to begin tapering their asset purchases, with the goal to end purchases outright in the first quarter of 2014."

TD Economics provides analysis of global economic performance and forecasting, and is an affiliate of TD Bank, America's Most Convenient Bank.

Source: TD Bank

Published with permission from RISMedia.

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Five Tips to Take before Hitting the Road

June 24, 2013 12:18 am

(Family Features)—Millions of Americans are expected to take a summer vacation this year. If you're one of those hitting the road to reach your final destination, here are a few reminders to help ensure you're road-trip-ready.

1. Check under the hood. 
Even if you properly care for your vehicle year round by keeping up with regularly scheduled maintenance, it is wise to check your vehicle's oil, coolant and wiper fluid levels before heading out on the road. Hot summer temperatures can cause your engine to overheat, so keep an eye on all of the warning lights on your dashboard -- from the engine light to the gas gauge.

2. Inspect your vehicle. To help avoid any unfortunate surprises, do a thorough check of your vehicle, paying special attention to the only part that actually touches the road -- your tires. Be sure to properly check all four tires with a tire pressure gauge. The optimum tire pressure required for your car can be found on a sticker in the door jamb, on the inside of the glove compartment door or in the owner's manual.
"The proper inflation is essential for the performance and longevity of a tire," says Ron Margadonna of Michelin. "In fact, keeping your tire pressure at the recommended level can boost fuel efficiency by one mile per gallon."

3. Check the weather.
Unexpected storms are common during the summer months and the first few minutes of a rain shower can be a dangerous time for drivers. Oil and grease trapped on roadways rises to the surface and can create slippery driving conditions that can impact the traction and grip of your car. In fact, stopping on a wet road can take up to four times the normal distance as a dry road. It's best to slow down and increase the space between you and the vehicle in front of you.

4. Prep friends, family and your home. Remember to tell neighbors, friends and family that you'll be out of town. Ask your neighbors to keep an eye on the house and have someone pick up your mail and newspaper. It's also a good idea to set up timers on lamps and lights in various rooms throughout your home so it looks occupied.

5. Review the route. No matter how well you plan your journey, you can never predict what obstacles you might encounter along the way. Road construction, traffic detours or bad weather can be troublesome if you don't have a backup plan. It's best to review your route and understand the alternate roads that can help you arrive at your destination safely, stress free and ready to enjoy your vacation.

Source: www.MichelinMan.com

Published with permission from RISMedia.

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Existing-Home Sales Rise in May with Strong Price Increases

June 24, 2013 12:18 am

Existing-home sales improved in May and remain solidly above a year ago, while the median price continued to rise by double-digit rates from a year earlier, according to the National Association of Realtors®.

Total existing-home sales, which are completed transactions that include single-family homes, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops, rose 4.2 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.18 million in May from 4.97 million in April, and is 12.9 percent above the 4.59 million-unit pace in May 2012.

Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist, said the recovery is strengthening and to expect limited housing supplies for the balance of the year in much of the country. “The housing numbers are overwhelmingly positive. However, the number of available homes is unlikely to grow, despite a nice gain in May, unless new home construction ramps up quickly by an additional 50 percent,” he said. “The home price growth is too fast, and only additional supply from new homebuilding can moderate future price growth.”

Existing-home sales are at the highest level since November 2009 when the market jumped to 5.44 million as buyers took advantage of tax stimulus. Sales have stayed above year-ago levels for 23 months, while the national median price shows 15 consecutive months of year-over-year increases.

Total housing inventory at the end of May rose 3.3 percent to 2.22 million existing homes available for sale, which represents a 5.1-month supply at the current sales pace, down from 5.2 months in April. Listed inventory is 10.1 percent below a year ago, when there was a 6.5-month supply.

The national median existing-home price for all housing types was $208,000 in May, up 15.4 percent from May 2012. This marks six straight months of double-digit increases and is the strongest price gain since October 2005, which jumped a record 16.6 percent from a year earlier. The last time there were 15 consecutive months of year-over-year price increases was from March 2005 to May 2006.

Published with permission from RISMedia.

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Speed Bumps Remain for Electric Cars; Incentives Could Recharge Interest

June 24, 2013 12:18 am

Electric cars are beginning to post all sorts of impressive numbers. Recently, the 100,000th plug-in vehicle was sold. And last year, roughly 440,000 cars deriving some degree of "go" from a battery – including hybrids, plug-in hybrids and cars running on electricity alone – were sold in this country, with approximately 50,000 of them being pure electrics.

Those are big numbers, but it's important to look at them with an equally big dose of perspective. With roughly 14.5 new million cars and trucks sold in the U.S. last year, combined hybrid sales of roughly 390,000 vehicles represent 3 percent of total sales; those 50,000 pure electrics? About 0.3 percent. But with more and more manufacturers producing battery-propelled vehicles of one kind or another, and fuel prices showing no sign of falling, many anticipate continued growth for the sector.

"Consideration has been on the rise over recent years for traditional hybrids, while other electric car segments – though showing points of growth – have been more sporadic in their gains," explains Mike Chadsey, vice president, Solutions Consultant at Harris Interactive.

When asked which of several improved-efficiency vehicle types they would consider the next time they are in the market for a new vehicles, nearly half of American car owners (or anticipated owners) indicated that they would consider a traditional hybrid (48 percent), while nearly four in ten (38 percent) would consider a smaller and/or less powerful gas-powered vehicle. Just over one-fourth (27 percent) would consider a plug-in hybrid, two in ten (19 percent) an electric vehicle and 16 percent would consider a diesel vehicle. Roughly four in ten (41 percent) indicate that they would only get a vehicle with lower operating costs if they could do so without changing their driving habits or expectations.

Current and prospective drivers were also asked how their likelihood to consider several types of vehicles has changed within the past two years.

• Over four in ten (43 percent) indicate being more likely to consider a traditional hybrid (43 percent) – roughly twice the percentage saying they're less likely to do so (21 percent).
• Adding an electrical plug appears to put the brakes on consideration growth, with current or prospective drivers reporting being more (30 percent) and less (30 percent) likely to consider them in equal percentages.
• Taking away the gas tank entirely seems to stall things out further still, with the 23 percent more likely to consider them overpowered by the 38 percent less likely to do so.

Challenges and opportunities for pure electrics

When asked to select their top concerns related to pure electric vehicles, price (65 percent) and range (63 percent) were the top issues, followed by repair/maintenance costs (55 percent), reliability (53 percent), performance/power (48 percent) and the fact that it is still new technology (44 percent).

But the electric vehicles industry still has some juice left; in addition to being in a state of constant advancement, the study indicates that several incentives – including some already being tried out by current manufacturers – show the potential to impact Americans' likelihood to consider such vehicles:

• The majority of Americans (56 percent) would be more likely to consider such a vehicle if it were incentivized with a free fast-charge station installed in their home.
• Nearly half (47 percent) would be more likely to consider one if it cost the same as a similar gas-powered vehicle.
• Over four in ten (42 percent) indicated that having charging stations at or near their workplace would provide such an incentive.
• Smaller, but still notable, percentages indicate that a free gas-powered loaner for a set number of days per year (20 percent), reduced costs on toll roads (17 percent), collision insurance provided with their lease (15 percent) and HOV or "carpool" lane access (14 percent) would make them more likely to consider an electric car.

Source: Harris Interactive

Published with permission from RISMedia.

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Why Taking Pets to Work Enhances Productivity and Improves Mood

June 23, 2013 6:18 pm

According to the American Institute of Stress, the major source of tension in American adults is job related. Luckily, there may be a silver lining to workplace stress and it has four legs, fur and a wagging tail. A recent study from Virginia Commonwealth University shows that interaction with animals can help lower levels of cortisol, the hormone related to stress. It also notes that people who bring their pets to work saw an 11 percent reduction of stress. Walking pets during work breaks can also increase productivity because it encourages more breaks that help jumpstart employee creativity and interaction. The following are four tips for inviting animals on the job.

Tip #1: Start Slow for First-Timers
Pet parents taking dogs to work for the first time can bet on their four-legged friend becoming distracted. To ensure good behavior, start pets out with short time increments in the office. If possible, start by taking Fido to work for half days while he gets used to the environment. Reward pets for good behavior such as laying at your feet quietly and resisting the urge to jump excitedly on coworkers. For anxious or overly excited dogs, pet parents can soothe Fido with the Thudershirt Dog Anxiety Solution - a breathable, lightweight vest that wraps around pets and provides gentle comfort.

Tip #2: Simple Commands to Ensure a Peaceful Workday
"Place" and "Stay" cues will help pets understand what their pet parents expect from them while at the office and provide a recognizable area for the dog to go when a break is needed. To begin, select a rug with non-slip grip (like a bathroom rug or yoga mat) and place it by your feet. Reward Fido when he stands or lies down on the rug. From there, add the command "place" so he associates this area with the word. Once the pet understands "place," add the command "stay." Soon, pets will begin to understand that the rug, or "place," is somewhere to go to sit and "stay". Don't forget to bring your rug to work! This not only works with a rug, but also with your dog's bed. Plus, bringing it to the office can calm dogs because it smells like home and helps make the new surroundings more familiar.

Tip #3: Expel Excess Energy Before Heading to the Office
It's normal for younger or easily excitable dogs to be very distracted at the office, but teaching pets manners and keeping them entertained can be easy. A half hour before heading in to the office, take him or her for a walk to burn off any excess energy. During work hours, bring a toy that can be filled with treats and provide hours of entertainment.

Tip #4: Arrive at the Office Safely
A key component of taking pets to work is their safety traveling to and from the office each day. Contrary to popular belief, some pets don't enjoy car rides. If this is the case, start pets out by only going a few miles and then gradually work up to the length of the commute. In addition, 61 percent of owners surveyed by the American Pet Products Associations admitted they do not secure or restrain their dog in the car. An unrestrained pet can cause distracted driving, which can harm themselves and the driver in an accident. Use a dog seatbelt or barrier to help keep pets contained and comfortable. Also, keep pets out of the front seat unless they are secured in a booster seat that won't trigger the front airbag in an accident.

Source: Petco

Published with permission from RISMedia.

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Clutter Free: Outdoor Home Storage Solutions

June 23, 2013 6:18 pm

(Family Features)—In the warmer months, we find ourselves outside more often, enjoying nature while playing with the kids and maintaining our lawns. But this additional time spent outside means more home and garden tools and more opportunity for a mess.

Here are some simple tips to keep your outdoor spaces cleaner and more organized:

Storage Bench - Use a storage bench to keep your gardening gloves, tools and children's outdoor toys. Available in a wide variety of sizes and styles, you can find the bench that fits your décor. Plus, they offer an extra seating area when you have company.
Bundle Cords - No one likes the unsightly appearance or hazard of cords. Before your gatherings, bundle together stereo and electronic chords that are exposed, as well as any cords that run across the lawn.
Paver Pots - Use old pavers to create plant containers. Simply stack the pavers together making a square shape. The heavy weight of the pavers keeps the dirt and plant contained together.
Deck Space - Use the space under your deck for additional, out-of-sight storage. Tuck plastic lidded storage containers underneath for easy access to children's sporting goods and toys.
Mesh Bags - Pool toys, rafts and inner tubes need a space to dry off. Use mesh bags so these summer toys properly are properly dried, preventing mildew or molding.
Proper Plant Care - Stock up on essentials for a healthy garden, including the tools to make plant seedlings thrive, such as Velcro Peel Away seed pots. These pots make it easy to remove the pots without disturbing the roots, making transitions from pot to flower bed flawless.
Repurpose Furniture - Turn old furniture pieces, such as old filing cabinets, into instant garage storage solutions. Take out the drawers of the cabinet and turn it on its side. Each empty drawer area provides a spot for large items like brooms, shovels and rakes.
Fence Storage - Turn old coffee or paint cans into storage bins for smaller gardening tools like hand shovels and pruning shears. For easy access while in the garden, cut holes and use rope to hang around a close-by fence post.
Tires - Stack old tires on top of each other for an outdoor toy container that kids can easily access. Paint the outside to match the color of your house or whatever color you fancy.
End of Season Storage - Keep your garage area tidy by organizing similar tools together. Use One-Wrap ties to keep gardening tools grouped together, or to keep hoses tightly coiled and out of the way. This product also comes in a variety of colors and sizes so that you can keep everything neat and organized.

Source: www.velcro.com

Published with permission from RISMedia.

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Nine Ways to Make the Most Out of Garage Sales

June 23, 2013 6:18 pm

Anybody can toss a few items out in the driveway and pronounce a garage sale in progress, but if you want to maximize the effort and profit from proffering your possessions, much like a real estate deal, you’ve got to set the stage. GetRichSlowly.org has some great advice on prepping for that all important day of the sale:

1. Be clear on the purpose of your sale. Are you selling things to make money or to get rid of them? This question affects everything you do, from how you price things, to how willing you may be to negotiate. Surprisingly, you can often make more money (and get rid of more junk) by pricing things low. If your goal is to get top dollar, you should really be selling on eBay or Craigslist.

2. Advertise. Stick an ad in the newspaper. Put up a notice on Craigslist. Post simple, effective signs around the neighborhood. It’s best to use big bold text like “HUGE SALE” with an arrow pointing the right direction. Make sure your sign is readable.

3. Get cash for change. Get a roll of quarters, a stack of 25 $1 bills, and a few $5 bills. Do this two days before the sale, so that if you forget, you can still get the change on the day before.

4. Prepare your staging area. People will be more inclined to stop if you set up shop in your yard or driveway. Some people are reluctant to enter a dark and dreary garage. Make your sale inviting and easy to browse. You can lure customers by placing highly-desirable items near the road.

5. Think like a customer. As soon as you’ve opened and fielded the initial flood of shoppers, walk through your sale as if you were there to buy something. How does it feel? Are things clearly marked? Is it easy to move around? Are your books on the ground in boxes? Or are they placed neatly on shelves or tables?

6. Display items to their advantage. Carry a bookshelf out to the garage. It takes more work, but you’ll sell more books if people can see them clearly.

7. Play background music. It’s a little uncomfortable to visit a garage sale (or to host one) when there’s complete silence in the yard or driveway. But don’t play offensive music either — play something appropriate for your audience.

8. Promote expensive items. Big-ticket items can be tough to sell, but you can do it with a little extra effort. For example, print out a website page from a business still selling the item that shows the original retail price and all the features.

9. Make it easy for shoppers to test electronic items. If you’re selling electrical items, make sure you have an extension cord handy so that people can test them. No smart person is going to just take your word that your television “works great.” Also, have some batteries on hand so a prospective buyer can test hand held electronics.

Published with permission from RISMedia.

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Wind, Rain, Hail, Lightning: Is Your Home Ready to Weather the Storm?

June 20, 2013 4:41 am

As extreme weather becomes more common across the state, homeowners should make sure their homes are prepared to deal with storms.

"Much of the property damage caused by extreme weather can be easily averted," said Kurt Dettmer, vice president and chief marketing officer for Fremont Insurance. "Simply keeping your structures and grounds in good repair can go a long way. That way, when severe weather threatens, a bit of picking up and latching down usually takes care of the rest."

Before the storm:

-Prepare an emergency kit to cover injury, power failure, heat loss, being stranded, and evacuation. Consider first aid and essential medications, non-perishable foods/fresh water, flashlight/fresh batteries, fire extinguisher, and protective clothing.
-Regularly inspect your home and grounds. Keep gutters and downspouts clear of debris to avert backups.
-Check your roof for loose or damaged shingles, seal around flashings and chimney; remove dead tree branches; check smoke and carbon monoxide detectors regularly.
-Make sure the fireplace and chimney are inspected and cleaned annually.
-Weather-stripping is invaluable against destructive weather.
-Where possible, move cars, boats, other vehicles, etc., into an enclosed area.
-Finally, when storms threaten, secure or anchor loose or flyaway items too large to bring in.

After the storm:

-Inspect your home for damage, and if you find damage, take preventive action to reduce risk of further loss. If your roof is damaged, cover it as soon as possible with tarps secured with ropes and nails. If your home is badly damaged, leave until it can be properly inspected.
-Report downed or sparking power lines, broken gas, or water mains. Avoid downed power lines and standing water. Don't attempt to drive across flowing water, downed power lines or enter barricaded areas.
-If you are without power, turn off all electrical equipment and avoid opening the refrigerator or freezer to keep food safe longer.
-If you use a generator, connect the equipment you want to power directly to the outlets on the generator. Do not connect a generator to a home's electrical system. Do not run a generator inside the home or garage.
-During clean up, don't pile debris near power lines. Always exercise care when using a chain saw or any other power tools.
When it is safe, take photos of damaged areas and possessions. Notify your insurance agent and provide an address and phone number to reach you.

"All these safeguards are relatively inexpensive and easy to complete," said Dettmer. "Sometimes, however, despite your best efforts, weather-related property damage may occur. Plan ahead for loss. Document your belongings by video or make a list for your insurance company, and consult with your agent to ensure you have adequate coverage."

Source: Freemont Insurance

Published with permission from RISMedia.

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Turn Your Balcony into an Edible Garden

June 20, 2013 4:41 am

Improvements in container gardening equipment and techniques have cleared the way for even the most “brown thumb” city dwellers, and anyone without a yard, to grow their own groceries.

While hydroponic and vertical gardening systems have been developed to maximize the yield in small spaces, starting a balcony garden needn’t cost much. Start with the right materials and choose plants that are right for your conditions, and you’ll soon be eating from the pots on your porch.

Plant the right plants for the amount of sunlight you have:

Most herbs and vegetables require six to eight hours of direct sunlight a day. So what do you do if you have just one balcony and it doesn’t get that much sun?

• Choose edibles that can take partial sun/shade (three to six hours of sun in the morning or early afternoon) or light shade (two to three hours of direct sun or lightly shaded all day.)

Some partial shade herbs: cilantro and parsley (both prefer cooler weather); dill, bee balm, spearmint chamomile.

Some light shade herbs: garlic chives, peppermint, rosemary.

Some partial or light shade veggies: lettuce, broccoli, green onion, collards, cabbage, peas, carrots, strawberries, beans, sweet potatoes.

• Remember, pale-colored surfaces increase the light your plants receive. Plants in regions with short growing seasons usually need the full six to eight hours of light per day.

Choose the right pots:

Bigger pots require less water and are less likely to blow over on high-rise balconies where the winds can be fierce. Terra cotta allows moisture to escape fairly quickly, which is helpful for people who like to water a lot. Non-porous plastic or glazed pots hold water longer and are better for windy balconies, where soil dries out quickly. Use brightly colored containers to add style and visual interest to your garden.

• Most vegetable plants require even watering – don’t let them dry out completely and don’t keep them soggy. Apply water directly to the soil.

• Make sure your containers have drainage holes or a drainage system. If they have an attached tray to catch excess water, don’t allow the plants’ roots to sit in the water, which promotes rot and fungus. Either empty the tray regularly, or use a design that holds the water away from the roots.

Use the right dirt:

• It’s important to use dirt that allows for good drainage. Most edible plants don’t like to sit in wet dirt, and soil without good drainage tends to become compacted – a difficult medium for plants that like to stretch their roots out. You can buy a sterile soilless potting mix, a soil-based potting mix, or mix up your own batch using 1 part compost, 1 part perlite and 1 part potting soil.

• Don’t use garden soil or top soil, which won’t allow adequate drainage.

• On windy balconies, top-dress your container with small rocks to keep the soil from drying out so quickly.

One more tip for high-rise dwellers: Rely on self-pollinating plants, or plants that don’t need pollination by insects, unless you’re willing to hand-pollinate.

Don’t worry about pollination for root vegetables, like carrots and potatoes. Some self-pollinators include beans, peas, tomatoes and peppers.

Source: Greenbo

Published with permission from RISMedia.

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Showrooming Not Slowing Down, According to Recent Poll

June 20, 2013 4:41 am

Despite brick and mortar retailers' best efforts to keep consumers buying in-store, forty percent of Americans have "showroomed," or tested out a product up close in a store but then purchased it online. Showrooming was a hot topic back in December, as many shoppers were using the tactic during the holiday shopping season to snag the best prices. According to a recent Harris Poll, which set out to determine whether the issue still remains, Best Buy, Walmart and Target are the most likely brick and mortar stores to get showroomed, with 23 percent, 21 percent and 12 percent, respectively, of showroomers choosing these stores to most frequently physically examine goods before buying online.

Death of a Salesman

Amazon continues to be showroomers' dominant destination, with 57 percent identifying the online retail giant as site where they most often make their showrooming purchases.

What reasons cause consumers to buy online? Are pushy salespeople preventing customers from completing their purchases? Almost six in ten showroomers with smartphones (59 percent) prefer looking up product information on their phone to asking a salesperson for help.

Give Them What They Want

How can brick and mortar retailers change consumers' behavior and get them to make their purchases in stores? A majority of showroomers (57 percent) will be more likely to make purchases in brick and mortar stores that have implemented permanent price matching policies in order to compete with online retailers. Retailers can also benefit from allowing consumers to place orders online that can then be picked up in a physical store - half of Americans (50 percent) have made purchases this way, and nearly all of those who have (93 percent) report being satisfied with the process. What offerings won't bring consumers in? The idea of charging consumers to physically examine a product in a store before purchasing at a different online retailer proved to be unpopular, with only 15 percent of consumers willing to be charged for showrooming.

Over eight in ten Americans consider the following factors to be very important or important when deciding to purchase in a store rather than online:

• Being able to take the item home immediately (86 percent)
• Taking advantage of sales in store vs. prices online (84 percent)
• Not having to deal with the hassles of returning online such as paying for shipping and/or having to pack item (83 percent)
• Ability to touch and feel item (83 percent)

Source: Harris Interactive

Published with permission from RISMedia.

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