Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Squeaker convention, chapter 2 (unedited)

So as noted, Keri is a local celebrity, and it's quite impressive.

She started her website barely a year ago. As she tells the story, she started it as a way to help others, not to create her own Internet company. In that time she has become a media darling, appearing regularly on Twin Cities television stations, and getting mentions in the Star Tribune. She has also been featured by several national media outlets, all in less than a year.

Her website was the latest step in her family's personal journey. The website is a result of her family's attempt to get out of debt. The story is a bit involved, but basically Keri and her husband have two young daughters, and they had a ton of debt. They stopped living beyond their means, started finding ways to cut costs and within three years got out of debt. It's an inspirational story.

Keri's website provides information on how to maximize savings at the grocery story by taking advantage of coupons, rebates and other incentives, links to freebies on the Internet and tips about deals and benefit available through the Internet. She isn't doing anything other sites aren't doing in some way, shape or form. There are national forums where people share advice about how to save money at Walgreens or how to get stuff free from online retailers through discount codes and rebates. Keri isn't ripping off this information and passing it off as her own research, but there's a certain amount of plagiarism that goes on in squeaker circles. She is probably best described as an aggregator, a term that is all the rage in online media circles these days. She gathers info from multiple sources and adds her own two cents.

Her website, however, is easy to follow and use, and it's targeted for the Twin Cities audience. She didn't invent the squeaker site, she simply created one that has a lot of appeal in the Twin Cities. And she does have a national following for some of her content, without question. Sales at Walgreens vary by region, but they're relatively similar, so a reader from Nevada could benefit from her website.

Keri explained at the convention how her rise to media stardom happened. Part of it was luck, part of it was self promotion. She is a TV person, meaning she plays well on TV. That helps.

Bottom line: she put a local spin on websites that have served a national audience at a time when everybody and their mother was trying to save an extra buck or two. What better time to launch her website than during the greatest recession of my lifetime.

One of her regular gigs is a local chat fest called Twin Cities Live. She appears weekly. The show, on our ABC affiliate, is patterned after a show that was popular in 1980s called Good Company. The shows are very similar, and that's by design. And back in the '80s Good Company had a "bargain hunter." The Internet hadn't been invented, but the bargain hunter reported on deals around the Twin Cities. Keri is the 21st century version of the bargain hunter.

How did I find Keri's site? She had started promoting it here and there, and I stumbled across her through a plug for the site. I was instantly hooked. I had already been clipping coupons, scouring the Sunday ads and taking advantage of the Walgreens deals. Keri's site took my bargain hunting to the next level.

There are other sites locally doing the same or similar things Keri does. I don't have enough time to track all of them. Keri's site keeps me busy. And it keeps her busy, too. Even though she has recruited help, she is quite busy running a website, a website that uses Facebook and Twitter to promote itself. A website she promotes regularly through her media appearances, as well as through community education classes she is now teaching about how to save money, with and without coupons.

It's quite an empire she's building, an empire she has managed to build in less than a year.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Pocket those dollars, baby!

I'm too tired to chronicle every last detail tonight, so perhaps this will become the first of a new series I will subtitle "squeakers convention."

I've written about how I have a mild obsession with coupons and retail deals, and how I inherited that from my mother. Since last summer I have been using a Twin Cities based deal finders website. The woman, Keri, started her website as a way to share the things she was learning about how to get great deals on retail purchases. She didn't intend to turn it into a full-time business, but that is what it has become.

I have taken advantage of Walgreens deals for a long time. And I tend to jump through too many hoops to get free shampoo, toothpaste, pet food or candy bars when the opportunity presents itself. So when I found a site that details how you can get a wide array of things at Walgreens and the grocery store free, or at a fantastic price, I was hooked.

Less than a year into her venture, Keri has become a local media darling. She appears on several local news/chat programs every month, talking about the deals available in any given week, be it an online deal, a grocery store deal or something else. She is good at selling her website, and herself, so it's not a surprise that she has become a local celebrity. She's not the first such local deal guru, and thanks to the internet, we have more than ever surfacing on local gab fests, but Keri's ascension to local stardom is pretty impressive...more about that another day.

Tonight she hosted her first squeakers convention. A squeaker, according to my girlfriend, is a coupon maniac. She didn't coin the term, it came from a clerk at her local Rainblow grocery store. I'm not sure how reducing your out-of-pocket costs is squeaking, but I like the term nonetheless, so I go with it.

Keri's site is not an online forum, it's an information source that allows users to comment at the end of her articles, much like a newspaper website. I don't pay attention to the names of the users who respond on her articles, but there are plenty of people who do so. Some of those folks wanted an opportunity to gather together and/or meet Keri, who they've all seen on TV, but otherwise have never met personally. So Keri decided to hold a "meet and greet."

She considered posting a first-come, first-register invite, but many people freaked at the thought they'd miss the opening of the event registration, which was limited to 100 people. So Keri opted to draw names from online entries to determine who would get an invitation. She had planned to limit her event to 100 people, but interest exceeded her wildest dreams. She had more than 1,000 entries for tickets, and was able to increase her event size to 250 people to meet the demand.

I entered the drawing and was picked, so my girlfriend and I attended the squeaker convention earlier tonight. On another night I'll detail more about what we saw, heard and received, and what my ulterior motive was for attending the convention.

What I learned from attending the convention: I'm quite the anomoly. I didn't expect every married woman to drag her husband along to the convention, but I didn't realize that coupon shopping was still predominantly a woman thing. There were at least 250 people in the room, and although I didn't attempt a head count, I don't think there were more than 10 men attending. One of those men was Keri's husband, another appeared to be the husband of a woman who assists Keri with the website. I didn't expect half the audience to be male, but I expected more than 4 percent of the audience to be male.

I'm not sure what that says about me, but perhaps now I know why cashiers are occasionally impressed by my coupon acumen. I'm not one in a million, but I'm not far off, either.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

"Telephone tiger!" (unedited)

Perhaps someday I'll explain why the phrase "telephone tiger" brings back such fond memories. The short version of the story: it's the result of stupid collegiate prank phone calling.

Thanks to caller ID, the old prank phone calls of the past are all but gone. I'm not particularly proud of it, but I use to enjoy the occasional prank phone call. I never got into serious trouble because of it, fortunately, but I was one of those annoying punks who use to make prank phone calls now and again. Yes, I've long outgrown the joy of the prank phone call -- even before caller ID -- but there's still a part of me that enjoys a harmless prank, especially if it involves the telephone.

Chip has a wacky habit of screening his phone calls. Unfortunately his telephone technology is stuck largely in the 1980s. He has a mobile phone, but it's not his primary phone, as he still maintains an old-fashioned home phone. Not only does he have a cordless phone wired to the wall of his condo, he has an answering machine attached to it. So when his phone rings, he sits there and waits for the answering machine to answer, his greeting to play and the caller to leave a message before determining if it's a call he wants to answer. I'm not sure who he's hiding from, but he has been doing this for years. I know he gets telemarketing type calls periodically, but most of those are when he is at work. And for the life of me I can't get him to tell me who it is he doesn't want to speak to unexpectedly, or admit to me there's no reason he should be screening his calls.

So years ago when I was visiting Stinktown for a weekend Chip screened one of his phone calls while I was there. I don't recall the details, but as I recall, he was having a minor problem with his phone. Or perhaps he was simply perplexed that his phone rang, the answering machine kicked in and the caller opted not to leave a message. Whatever the circumstances, the light bulb over my head illuminated. As we sat there watching football one afternoon, I had my mobile phone discreetly at my side, out of his view. Yep, I dialed his home phone number and we sat there as it rang. And sure enough, once the answering machine kicked in, I disconnected the call. I did this several times, all while keeping a straight face, even as Chip got increasingly frustrated. I think he was convinced there was a problem with his phone line rather than somebody calling and hanging up.

He became so perplexed that he decided he had to answer the phone before his answering machine kicked in. And of course I managed to hang up before he did. I'm sure the stress of it raised his blood pressure even higher than usual.

Of course the punchline should have been speaking to him through my phone when he answered his, but he was in one of those pissy moods. Sometimes he can appreciate a good laugh or practical joke, other times he acts like you've spit on his grandfather's grave. I wasn't in the mood to deal with the latter Chip, so it's one of those jokes I had to appreciate silently...until now.

There was a similar game I started playing recently. My bingo hall has a pay phone, which has a quieter-than-standard ring. A while ago it started ringing on a nightly basis, usually at the same time of the night. I think it was doing it at two set times, as if the phone number was on an automated dialing list. Whenever anybody answered the call, there was no sign of anyone on the other end.

It didn't take long before I realized that I could have fun with this. Yep, I added the pay phone number into my contact list, and would occasionally dial it discreetly while at work, usually when I was nowhere near it. Sometimes I'd do it once, sometimes I'd do it a few times in a row. It was amazing how frustrating it was to a few of my co-workers.

When I'd dial the number, I immediately put the call on mute, so that there would be silence on the line if somebody answered it and listened for a response. (More often the person answering the phone would quickly hang it up.)

I didn't expect anybody to notice the phone was only ringing when I was working, but I quickly deduced I needed to call it on nights when I wasn't working, too, just to change it up. Yep, that's right, I'm too easily amused by the stupidest things.

Unfortunately for me the fun and games are over. At work tonight I noticed the phone was missing from the wall. I asked the manager where it went. She explained that she called the service provider to report the periodic ringing. The service provider looked at our account and determined the phone wasn't generating enough income to justify it being there at no cost to the bingo hall. That's not a shock, but it did get used occasionally.

It's amazing how the pay phone has nearly become obsolete. There are still plenty of them around, but you don't see them everywhere any more. You're just as likely to see an empty wall or stand where there use to be a pay phone as you are to find one that is working.

The bingo hall had two choices, pay to keep it on the wall or have it removed. The bingo hall wasn't interested in paying to keep it, naturally.

So thanks to my tomfoolery there's one less pay phone in this country. And this makes me sad. How am I supposed to amuse myself at the bingo hall now?

Monday, March 8, 2010

And the Oscar for worst party goes to:

I haven't seen one Oscar-nominated film from 2009, not one. I might be wrong, but I don't recall watching even one flick that had a chance of winning anything on Sunday night. Plenty of mainstream movies get nominated for the sound categories and costuming, but I've missed every one of them. It's not that I boycott those flicks, I just don't get out to the movies much.

But being a sucker for an event, I entered to win tickets to an Oscar party at Theatres at Mall of America. Yep, the movie theater at that bastion of retail gluttony was hosting an Oscar party. I e-mailed an entry, thinking it would be a nice evening out for my girlfriend. I'm not sure how many people were intrigued by the idea of watching the Oscars on a movie screen, but I won two tickets.

I went to an Oscar party several years ago, the big party in Minneapolis. I won tickets to that party, too, and took the girlfriend of the time. That party is an annual fundraising event that draws a good crowd. We had a good time at that party.

Flash forward to 2010, I'm going to a party at a movie theater. I didn't expect it to measure up to the big gala, but I figured it would be fun. I was wrong.

The MOA theaters opened, with the mall, more than 17 years ago. At the time it was impressive: 14 screens in an over-sized mall. Within a few years we had 16- and 20-screen theaters opening around the Twin Cities, many with stadium seating. The mall theaters looked lame in comparison, yet mall ticket prices were among the highest in the Twin Cities.

The theaters had been part of a chain, but a few years ago they went independent. Under the new, independent ownership the theaters have been revamped a bit. There's now a VIP theater. It has nice, wide seats, cocktail tables and a waitstaff. You have to be 21 to view a movie in the VIP theater, as they serve beer and wine. It has been years since I went to a movie at that theater, and the idea of paying a premium for VIP tickets, just for the privilege of buying a beer during a movie, has little appeal to me.

But Sunday night I sat in that precious theater, watching free TV. I'm not sure if they've held an Oscar party in the theater previously, but the idea makes sense. People go to the movies during Oscar night, but given it's a Sunday, chances are attendance in the VIP theater would be less than capacity. On Oscar night, why not open it up and cater to those who love Hollywood?

Since it was a free party, I wasn't expecting free cocktails. But I would have thought they'd offer complimentary hors d'œuvres. I was wrong.

There are some nice restaurants in the mall, and others that are a step above the food court. You'd think they would have lined up one of those restaurants to provide complimentary munchies for the party. On a Sunday night, during the Oscars, how busy could one mall restaurant be? Why not give away some product and promote your restaurant? It might not have done the restaurant much good, but it would have benefited the theater to do so.

Without complimentary hors d'œuvres, we ordered a couple of munchies off the theater menu. It may be a VIP theater, but the food is definitely coach class. Choices included hot dogs, pizza, chicken fingers, mozzarella sticks, popcorn, jumbo pretzels and French fries. We ordered overpriced French fries and mozzarella sticks. The French fries were adequate, at best, and the sticks were subpar. I thought all mozzarella sticks were created equal, but the MOA theater proved that you can sell crappy sticks.

We also ordered drinks, although not the champagne or champagne coolie drink they were selling. They had some sort of bar set up at the front of the theater, although I didn't see anyone buying a drink up there. It looked like there were a lot of bottles of champagne chilling up there, and plenty of them left at the end of the night. As you'd expect, being served alcohol in a movie theater is a privilege you pay for. We spent about $40 on food/drink, and I didn't exactly over-tip.

The party was sponsored by Metromix, a website that has all sorts of restaurant and entertainment information for numerous cities around the country. The site is owned by the parent company of our local NBC affiliate. We arrived shortly before the ceremony started, although the theater opened its doors to Oscar VIPs at 6 p.m.

The weathercaster of all trades at NBC-11 was the host of the party early on. During commercials he would get up and ask Oscar trivia for prizes. I'm not very good at Oscar trivia, so I had little chance of winning a prize. We also received a raffle ticket, as there were prizes given away randomly.

At some point after the ceremony started the weathercaster slipped out, leaving some Metromix woman to conduct the prize giveaways during the commercials, which inexplicably featured Michael Jackson as the background music all night long. The weathercaster was less than charismatic as the emcee, but Ms. Metromix nearly sucked the life out of the party. She wasn't terrible, but she was far from a natural, and she insisted on plugging her damn website throughout the night.

Everybody in attendance received a gift bag, which contained a few product samples, a soundtrack CD from one of the flicks, two tickets to the mall's comedy club and a couple of other random items. Nothing special, but not terrible, either. My girlfriend and I both won a raffle prize. We received a DVD of a recent 2-star movie, a promotional T-shirt too small for just about any adult male in the United States and a Metromix notebook. It was nice to win something, but we didn't win much.

At the end of the night they drew tickets for VIP theater tickets, as well as gift cards for the mall, but I assume we were out of the running since we had already won a prize. Thanks Metromix, we were able to leave 60 seconds before everyone still in the running. Way to buzzkill the big prize drawing at the end.

What should have been a showcase for the mall and the theater was a rather dull Oscar party that has given me no incentive to return to the mall for a VIP experience any time soon. When it comes to hosting an Oscar party, Theatres at Mall of America earned a Razzie.