Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Goodwill doesn't necessarily mean used goods

Someone recently asked me what my biggest obstacle is to the success of Goodwill Too! (for those who just joined us, Goodwill Too! is the e-commerce web site at operated by my employer, Goodwill Industries-Suncoast).

Of course, there are plenty of obstacles, just as there are plenty of successes, but the one that jumps out at me these days is a preconception. Goodwill Industries is well-known for quite a few things, but one thing people think of when they think of a Goodwill store is a pretty good selection of used merchandise. Gently used, more often than not, but used nonetheless. That Goodwill takes donations of used items and sells those items in their stores to generate revenue to run its programs is no surprise to most people. I think many people are surprised, though, to learn not every Goodwill store limits itself to donated goods.

Like many Goodwills elsewhere, Goodwill-Suncoast supplements its stores' offerings with a copious amount of new items. Since the organization's customers are used to finding used items at very low prices, the new merchandise is also offered for less than typical retail. This is not a universal idea, however. Not every Goodwill, worldwide, offers new goods. It is easy enough to tell which ones do, however, when one walks in a store. The new goods are packaged like they would be anywhere else, so they tend to stand out.

So, when I was tasked with building a virtual Goodwill store, the aforementioned Goodwill Too!, I knew I'd be able to offer both new goods and gently used goods, and our local customers don't seem to have a problem with it.

The problem is, web site visitors from outside Goodwill-Suncoast's area often assume everything offered on the web site is previously used. It doesn't seem to matter what we say on the site, they want to believe the entire site is stocked with donated merchandise.

Yes, we have some gently used items online, but for the most part, they are confined to the Gently Used Merchandise category. The rest of the site, roughly 7/8 of the inventory, is brand new merchandise. Those low prices you see on items are low because we got a good deal on them... not because the items had been used once!

So, success would come to Goodwill Too! a bit faster if people looked at the merchandise the right way. Goodwill Too! is a shopping web site offering retail items cheaply and carrying a few donated items because, after all, we are still Goodwill!

I think if the Goodwill Too! Team just got that word out, people who shied away from Goodwill stores in the past would take a peek at our selection, and shortly another barrier would fall.

What do you think?

Monday, November 26, 2007

Like any good sailor, one must learn when to change tack

It's been a while since I've last written, as you can tell. Of course I have an excuse (it's up to you whether you're willing to buy my excuse). You see, I have a new job.

No, I didn't lose the one I acquired when I last wrote. That's the job that's been keeping me busy, and I've finally gotten to the point where I can talk about it.

For the first few months my job was a bit of a mystery, because my key responsibility was a project we were developing below the industry radar. Whether that was a good idea is no longer a question. The project became visible to the light of day on October 29, 2007, and the task has switched from development to maintenance.

On October 29, the world learned (at least, those in the world who cared) that I had been named E-Commerce Manager for Goodwill Industries-Suncoast. My task was to build and manage a virtual Goodwill Store. There were quite a few really interesting ways I could have gone about this task; I took one of the least interesting ones. Why? I believed I had no choice.

The project, in fact, the whole E-Commerce Department, is not a subset of IT, like many would expect. No, E-Commerce is a subset of the group that runs the brick & mortar stores, and more specifically, the E-Commerce Manager answers to the Director of Acquisitions and Allocations (A&A). A&A, while waiting for an incoming E-Comm Mgr, attempted to lay the groundwork, with some assistance from IT. The result is that many of the initial decisions were made before I came aboard, and as the new guy, I didn't believe I had the ability to challenge those decisions.

So, I went with the flow.

The result is the web site you'll find at When I find the time to talk, down the road, I'll probably talk some about that web site: the reasoning behind some decisions as well as comments about products, themselves. Particularly fun, from my point of view, is how work as an e-commerce manager in a world unattached to IT or Marketing departments compares to my previous (mis)conceptions.

Oh, and as you'd expect, I'll close with this: if you happen to be someone who likes to save money when shopping, please be sure to visit the web site. And while you're at it, bring some friends. Not just for Goodwill, but for me as well!

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Change for the Better

It's funny how things can happen just when they need to happen. Take my job and my water lines, for example ...

A dramatic increase in our water bill told us something was amiss. The county water department nonchalantly informed us we had a water leak somewhere in the 50+ year-old plumbing on our property, but was kind enough to tell us they'd rebate part of the water bill when we present them with a copy of the plumber's bill for fixing the leak. That, of course, means we have to have a plumber fix the leak. We knew we'd need pipe work eventually, but my less-than-optimal current occupation made paying for a plumber a challenge. Unfortunately, at the rate the water was apparently flowing, we'd soon need to finance our water bill, so we had little choice.

Finding a water leak is amazingly like finding a break in a network, and makes one think briefly about the "pipes" we pump out data through. The analogy is never clearer than when you're troubleshooting a broken water pipe. Do you know where the lines run? Check the obvious and least expensive places first. With the water main being my Internet and the meter acting as the router, I started tracing the problem just far enough to confirm the problem wasn't obvious. A water leak under ground can make itself evident, particularly in a time of drought, by an abnormally green patch of lawn over the pipe. The problem (like some I've run into chasing Ethernet breaks) is I didn't know where the pipes actually ran. No patch of lawn looked better than another, suggesting the break wasn't out in the open, but I didn't know where to look.

I gave in, and we called a leak detector. Shortening an already-too-long story, he found the leak under some bushes (which were benefiting from the extra water without actually looking like it, those devils!). Next came the plumber, and with him the bad news: The leak was a ruptured main line into the house, just past the turn-off, and the rupture led under the house.

We could put it off no longer. We had to re-pipe the house. Water was shut off, and the next week was spent getting quotes and lining up financing. Meantime, a helpful neighbor donated a bucket and access to his water, so we could keep a toilet operational. We called it a "hurricane drill", living off bottled water and quickly discovering how much stored water was needed to keep functionally sanitary (like most people, we are woefully unprepared).

The financing was the really ugly part, as my retail manager job had until now only managed to keep us afloat. Now our boat has sprung a leak and I had to find a way to keep us from sinking.

A dry dock beats a life preserver

That was when one of life's funny coincidences occurred. I answered a scantily-detailed ad for an e-commerce manager position and was pleasantly surprised to be called about it. I might even say I was amazed, given my previously noted observations on job hunting. My good fortune came from the method of response required by the employer. The ad requested faxed resumes or personally-submitted applications ... no e-mails accepted. The responses had to drop to a mere handful of applicants who were serious enough to locate a fax machine or drop by to apply. My resume, once buried in an avalanche of applicants, now stood for itself, and of course my credentials in e-commerce were exemplary (if I do say so myself).

The interview was a pleasant two-hours long, and both myself and my prospective employer were bursting with enthusiasm about the project - a new venture for the company and a new department to be managed, complete with a warehouse crew for the receiving and shipping of inventory.

They offered me the job on the same day the plumber started digging the hole to lay the new pipes. The pay is more in line with what I should be making at this point in my career (read into that whatever you want), so my boat can stay afloat a while longer. I start July 30, and hope to share my observations and pitfalls as I go.

See? Things do have a way of working out. Who would have thought ...?

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Victory over Checkers ... of a sort

You may recall I've had an ongoing feud with Checkers over customer service. More specifically, I grew tired of the local restaurant's carelessness in handling a special order, where they time and time again ignored requests to hold onions on sandwiches Bocona would order, despite warnings that she was allergic to them. Even a call to their corporate offices went unreturned.

Bocona forgave them, since she really does like the Big Buford burgers. I was the one who had to deal with their ineptness, however, and I insisted that my boycott of the restaurant be maintained.

Perhaps I was not alone in my actions.

Earlier this week we drove past the restaurant in question and found it closed. Not just closed, but very closed. Quite permanently so. The signs are gone, the windows boarded up. It appears the company decided the store simply wasn't worth saving.

No, we never did hear from the company. But Bocona's temptation is gone, as are the chain's employees who simply couldn't learn from their mistakes. I don't necessarily wish ill-will upon those employees, but I would hope they weren't simply transferred to other locations. These people shouldn't be in a position to put customers at risk. I hope they found other work ... the kind where customer lives aren't risked when they make mistakes.

You don't have to be a rocket scientist to work in fast-food, but you do have a responsibility to remember the health of your customers may be affected by your actions. If you can't live up to that responsibility, don't get a job in a restaurant. It's that simple.

I'm not celebrating. I regret the restaurant had to close. But I'm glad there is one less place where quality of service plays second-fiddle to the profit margin. I truly am tired of what fast-food has become.

Monday, June 25, 2007

One man's protection is another man's censorship

My attention has been drawn toward Google's fight against global Internet censorship, and like many others, I find it amusing that Google has chosen to champion this cause, in light of its well-publicized participation in the censorship of the web from within Chinese IP space. I've read Google's line on both subjects - how censorship is an economic issue, rather than a political one, and that their censorship of web searches from China was necessary to allow Chinese access to any part of Google - and I don't exactly see the positions as contradictory.

Like any other corporation, Google clearly wants to have its cake and eat it too. No surprise. Google regrets having to censor Chinese access, but looks at the censorship as the lesser of two evils. After all, how can a company truly succeed with a motto like "Do no Evil" when it is given a choice between one of two evils?

But today's issue is global Internet censorship, which, if defeated, would essentially allow Google to remove the blocks it was forced to place on Chinese inquiries. A noble cause, one might say, and very characteristic of Internet culture. After all, my ability to write these words comes courtesy of the freedom from censorship afforded me by my residency in the United States.

But that doesn't mean I'm not being censored. Yes, I have freedom of speech, but we've already seen numerous cases where that freedom carries a caveat. You can't shout "Fire!" in a crowded theater, as one famous example puts it (unless there really is a fire, I suppose). There are restrictions on one's freedom from censorship - and how free you really are depends on the definition of censorship and who is doing the defining.

It's well and good to take a stance against censorship, but before going too far, ask yourself what you might be opening the gates for. Pornography? Piracy? Spam? Terrorism? Where is that line between protection and censorship? Who should have the right to define it, if anyone? And what makes that party any better at drawing the line than the next party?

The fight against global Internet censorship is probably a spin-off of the fight for Net Neutrality, and just like that fight, the truth lies somewhere between the spin doctors for both sides.

Don't be quick to take a position.

As for elsewhere...

Bocona reports the local Checkers has changed management, and she's willing to give them an upteenth chance. I still haven't seen an e-mail from anyone with Checkers, and am not as quick to accept an untendered apology. I hope Bocona's forgiving attitude doesn't lead her to her grave.


Things aren't so rosy at my retail position. For a few weeks I had them contracting me to rebuild their Internet marketing strategy (which sorely needs repair), but once they saw what it would cost them in hard dollars to do things right, that project was axed. I don't think this gig is going to last me very long.


Verizon and I had another spat. I requested a speed upgrade, but it didn't appear to happen, so I called support. The tech made a few adjustments and had me switch the Internet connection from the Actiontec router directly to one of my PCs. A quick SNMP reset/renew and there I was, faster, but not quite fast enough -- I thought. Arrangements were made for techs to look into the matter, but when I got off the phone and switched the connection back to the Actiontec, the Internet connection was dead.

I called back. Different tech this time, and he wasn't interested in what the previous tech had done. After 30 minutes and two router power cycles, he decided I'd blown the router, and he had to send me a replacement. Final. No buts about it.

Off the phone, I logged into the router's management console and issued an SNMP reset/renew. Problem solved... but I had to call Verizon a third time and cancel the planned delivery of a replacement router. I guarantee the contents of that call found their way to a supervisor.

So, life is faster, now, but not necessarily any better. If you have an IT position for me in the Tampa Bay area, I'd like to hear what you have to say.

If not, you are still welcome to drop by Your World News if you like.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Checkers no longer finishes the race

Bocona likes the Big Buford. I have to admit, so do I.

But Bocona is also allergic to onions, one of the ingredients in Checkers' burger.

"No problem," one might say, "simply order a Big Buford without onions."

If only it were that simple. You see, we've tried that, but the Checkers restaurant on 14th Street West in Bradenton, FL doesn't seem to know how to do special orders. In fact, they can't even get the simple ones right.

Four of the last five visits I've made to that restaurant resulted in botched orders, including placing onions on Big Bufords requested without them. Errors that, if it weren't for the caution routinely taken by the consumer, might have resulted in hospitalization or death.

On the last visit, I told the store manager - who happened to take my order that day - she screwed up.

"No I didn't," she replied, pointing at my receipt, "I told them to make the burger without onions. The cooks screwed up."

Clearly this manager doesn't understand the concept of managerial responsibility. On each of the many botched visits, I've received the same results: a less-than-heartfelt apology and a replacement for the problem order. Nothing to compensate for the time or fuel wasted (Checkers is a drive-thru restaurant, and the errors are usually caught at home, then driven back to the restaurant for correction).

But take heart! The bag says if I'm happy with my Checkers experience, I should tell a friend, while if I'm not, I should call a toll-free number. So Bocona called that toll-free number Saturday, March 10. She told the voice at the other end what happened, and the voice at the other end took her name, her phone number, and her e-mail address (which is actually one of my e-mail addresses, but that isn't important).

And now, over one week later, we're still waiting for someone from Checkers Corporate to call or e-mail about her complaint.

Meanwhile, we've lost our patience. We're voting with our money and boycotting Checkers. What you'd expect anyone to do.

And I'm doing what any responsible blogger would do - telling the world about it. Who knows? Maybe there are a few other lives I can save besides my wife's.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Verizon FiOS: Power IS an Issue

Continuing my series on Verizon FiOS, you may recall from my first post an observation that the ONT has a battery backup for the phone line, but the router would require its own UPS to maintain an Internet connection during a power failure, as would the attached televisions.

I see now this speculation was only that, but in a very negative way. I recently found myself in a position to test this speculation, and was unhappy with what I learned.

It isn't a power issue; it's designed that way

On a recent afternoon, Bocona flipped a light switch in the master bath and a light bulb dramatically failed. The bulb apparently had a hot spot and literally blew out, not only failing the light but also the circuit, tripping a breaker. This breaker controlled the master bath, the master bedroom, the guest bath, and half of the guest bedroom (aka, my office). Bocona, of course, noticed the bulb failure in the master bath and switched to the guest bath, where she discovered the light was also dysfunctional. She did not recognize the power failure, however. She called me to tell me the lights had gone out in both baths, asking me to pick up replacement bulbs on my way home.

When I got home, the story became more complicated. Bocona reported the TV service had failed; all she could watch was shows recorded on the DVR. Both the TV and the DVR functioned fine, but we had no live programming. I asked her to check the TV in the master bedroom while I called Verizon Support to report the outage. Before I got a human on the line, however, she called out to tell me the power was out in the master bedroom.

This got me thinking, and I went to my office. As I expected, everything in my office worked except the power outlet the ONT's power supply was using. The Actiontec router was looking very normal, but the battery backup's status lights showed the ONT was running on battery.

Now, remember, Verizon said the battery backup existed to ensure phone service during a power outage. The phone was working (I had started to use it to call for support), but even though the router had its independent power and was showing good service, the DVR was not receiving a TV signal.

I went to the breaker box and reset the tripped breaker, and returned to my office. The ONT successfully returned to household current. Next we tried the TV, but found no improvement. On a hunch, I power cycled the router, and after a few moments the TV service was restored.

My disappointing conclusion was that investment in UPSes for the router and the TV/set-top boxes would be mostly wasted. The battery backup does exactly what Verizon promises: it permits the ONT to maintain the phone service.

It does not permit the ONT to maintain the TV service, on the possibility I could maintain power to the televisions and set-top boxes. Alas, I did not check the Internet connection, although the experiment would be easy to duplicate.

A workaround

I'm not crazy about the idea, but there is still, theoretically, another way around this. What I would have to do is put a very good UPS on the power outlet used to feed the ONT, then plug the ONT/battery backup into this UPS. In theory, the ONT would then be unaware of the power failure as long as the UPS functioned, and the ONT wouldn't cut off the other services until the UPS died. In hurricane threatened communities, this might be appropriate, but I'd like to get a power professional's opinion before making the investment... or even better, an opinion from a knowledgeable Verizon FiOS technician (not necessarily equated to Verizon FiOS support).

If I learn anything new, I'll be sure to share. Meanwhile, feel free to visit to share your favorite news and technology links.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Verizon FiOS: Tiling Be Gone!

In my last entry, I reported some lingering and persistent trouble with "tiling" with my new Verizon FiOS TV service. Well, I'm happy to report the trouble has been resolved.

I began to have intermittent trouble with the DVR/set-top box. Once, maybe twice a day, the box would "lock up." The only way around these spells was to physically detach the power cord from the Motorola box, then re-attach the cord and wait out the power cycle. Needless to say this was annoying behavior, and a call to Verizon FiOS Tech Support ensued.

Tech Support sent a hard reset command to the box remotely, but instead of completing the boot process, the box died with an error code (not translated, unfortunately). The tech on the phone scheduled a service call for the first day I was available, and saved me from total TV boredom by explaining I could get basic cable channels by moving the coax from the set-top box directly to the antenna/cable input on my TV.

The Experienced Technician

On the designated date and time, the technician arrived, supposedly to swap the set-top box. I scratched my head a bit when he started buckling on his tool belt. After all, I thought, how many tools would he need to exchange a defective set-top box? My inquiry on the subject drew a satisfying answer.

"I don't take anything for granted," he replied. "The problem may be your set-top box, but it may be something else."

I described the previous tech's exercise with attenuators, which drew a scoff from the tech. A few minutes with the meter, and the tech pronounced my signal to be at the ideal strength without the attenuators (which he handily removed). He then replaced the set-top box as planned, re-initialized and activated it, and waited for it to boot.

It failed to boot properly, stopping on a very permanently tiled display.

The tech eyed the cable from the wall. The very yellowed cable. The cable that had been installed by the home's previous owners, more than 15 years before. The cable used by the FiOS installer, apparently to avoid having to re-cable my home.

The tech then traced that suspicious length of cable to where it joined with the new cable that had been installed when FiOS was installed. Muttering something under his breath, likely about the installer I'm guessing, the tech went to his truck. Out came the spool of coax and his stepladder. In a few short minutes, the old, yellowed cable was gone, and shiny, white cable completed the run from the line splitter to the set-top box.

The set-top box was rebooted, and the TV's normal picture returned.

We haven't seen the tiling since!


Since writing about my Verizon FiOS installation, that story has become one of the heaviest read pieces in this series. I'd like to answer questions, but I actually need to determine what the questions are before I can answer them. Please post your comments and questions to the blog, so I can share your questions and their answers with my readers. I'll continue to share some of the more interesting aspects of my Verizon FiOS installation in future blogs.

And for those who are wondering, I did manage to get a job, though oddly enough it wasn't in the technology field. I'm in a retail management position, now, and may talk more about it in the future. And I'm still encouraging visits to Your World News, as you might expect.

Now I'm off to see what Bocona has recorded on the DVR these days ...